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Children Waiting for the End of the World

by Daniel Loxton, Jun 08 2010

Banner image © Daniel Loxton. As a child in the 1970s and 80s, I often had an experience which must have been even more familiar to children of the 1960s: lying awake at night, alone in my room, paralyzed with terror about nuclear armageddon. In those Cold War days, the end of the world seemed oppressive and omnipresent, especially for a child. Every Hollywood movie, every news story about the arms race and the Doomsday Clock seemed to whisper in my ear at night, “It could happen at any moment. It could happen before you wake up.”

Not every kid my age had that fear, but many did — I think probably millions. Perhaps you were one of the kids who felt yawning horror at each unexpected flash on the horizon, or relief at the sound of ordinary thunder?

I was recently reminded of those feelings when I received a kind letter from a man named Jason Guay. A child mental health therapist with Niagara Child and Youth Services, Jason wrote to share one of the most encouraging things I’ve heard during my tenure at Junior Skeptic:

Many of the children I serve suffer from mental illness and I think they deserve only the best science has to offer if they are to have a chance. Your issues of Junior Skeptic are read to my children in my social skill class and compliment cognitive-behavioural therapy nicely! They often come in with irrational beliefs (phobias/generalized anxiety) and by reading Junior Skeptic they are able find courage to challenge many of these irrational beliefs and start to think like a scientist, resulting in reduced anxiety. …

I often use the Scooby Doo issue to help ease children’s anxiety of ghosts and the unknown and it is very effective. Good job!

I have a young son of my own, so you can imagine what a letter like that feels like.

But Jason went on to say something more, something I thought I should share with you.

Lately, I have had a lot of kids who come very concerned about the end of the world in 2012. … These poor children often tell me that have had countless sleepless nights,  and have lower grades as a result of their worry.

I think you may be able to imagine how I — as a father — feel about that, too.

I’ve long suspected that we skeptics may underestimate the amount of distress the 2012 idea is causing. Skeptics know that the end of the world has come and gone hundreds of times, and so we feel in our hearts that this 2012 business must be a trivial issue. It’s easy to feel cavalier about fears we don’t share. It’s easy to forget what those night terrors feel like — especially for children.

Of course kids are worried about 2012. Hype about the coming end of the world is everywhere. Nor is it only kids who are concerned. In my immediate circle, I know at least three adults who are deeply worried, and others who have at least occasional moments of “what if?” unease. At a picnic yesterday, sitting there in the evening sun, a friend with a hard science degree asked, “Doesn’t it seem like there’s something weird going on with the Earth? All these earthquakes, volcanoes…?”

That’s not a dumb question. It does seem that way. I know I’m thinking a lot more about earthquakes after Haiti. But seeming doesn’t make it so, and thankfully there are ways to find out. “Well, you have an iPhone in your hand,” I said. “Why don’t you Google it right now?”

Google autofill reveals concern about "rising" number of earthquakes

Google autofill reveals concern about “rising” number of earthquakes

And that’s what she did, right there on the beach. Of course, my friend has the research habits to have done that without my suggestion. She also has the scientific background to feel satisfied with the answers from the US Geological Survey or this short, simple New York Times article from British Geological Survey seismologist Roger Musson. (Incidentally, the answer is “No.” Recent earthquake activity has been especially tragic, but not unusually powerful or frequent.)

But not everyone has those skills (or, for that matter, confidence in science). I don’t mean a word of judgment when I say that. When grandparents hear from their friends or grocers or televisions that the hundreds of thousands of 2010 earthquake victims are just the beginning, why shouldn’t that give them pause? When children hear the same thing, why shouldn’t they be afraid?

As I type this, some of those children are lying awake with the terrified belief that the world will end in two years. Their nightmares are like my own childhood nuclear horror, but different in one critically important respect: 2012 fears are not based on an actual danger. What’s the harm of 2012 scaremongering? Children suffering for no reason.

What do we, as skeptics, do about that? Step one is simply to internalize the same truth again and again and again: when paranormal beliefs burn out of control, people get hurt. Ordinary, smart, good people — people like your loved ones, and mine.

Skeptic magazine cover (Vol. 15 #2)

Free online: Skeptic magazine’s recent cover story “A NASA Scientist Answers the Top 20 Questions About 2012″

And then, we need to roll up our sleeves. With that in mind, I’d like to ask you to do something this week, something small: try to make someone feel better about 2012. Talk to a friend. Tweet a resource. Share a link.

Here’s mine: Skeptic magazine has made available our recent “A NASA Scientist Answers the Top 20 Questions About 2012″ cover story (by Dr. David Morrison, Director of the NASA Lunar Science Institute and Senior Scientist in the NASA Astrobiology Institute). It’s free in both English and Spanish translation.

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40 Responses to “Children Waiting for the End of the World”

  1. badrescher says:

    I’m glad you reminded us to think about this. My own boys’ fears tend to be more rational, but they weren’t always. The less knowledge we have, the easier it is to find things to worry about.

    When my youngest was about 4 we had a particularly bad storm, he saw the water pour down our steep driveway like a waterfall and went white. When I asked him if he was afraid of the water, he explain why: there might be SHARKS in it!

    BTW, he was immediately relieved when I explained that the water couldn’t possibly have sharks in it, then asked to go out and play in it…

    • Matt says:

      Yeah, I know what you mean. My 12 year old nephew has Aspergers, so in some area’s he’s a bit lacking, but then he’ll come out of left field with surprisingly mature and insightful observations:
      He saw something I was watching, like History’s Universe, and earlier he had seen something about 2012, so he says’s something like “If god decides to make the sun blow up in 2012, will the people on the back side of the planet be OK? And if they do live, won’t it be too cold, and all the air be burned away?” WTF!? Yeah, what do you do w/that: where do I start?

      So (while carefully balancing the peaks, as his ardent Lutheran mother, who deplores my lack of faith, is watching) I start by explaining that 2012 apocalypse probably isn’t likely. Then, as I start explaining how the sun should have plenty of fuel for the next 10 billion years, I am interrupted by his mother, who say’s,”That’s enough. He gets it, and he doesn’t understand the idea of 10 billion years.”
      So I look back at my nephew, and he turns toward me, and with his face unable to be view by his mother rolls his eye’s, slightly shakes his head, and gives me a look that say’s, “Ugh, moms can be SO DENSE!”
      A bit long, I know. But it was such a good example of how much more understanding kids can be than we imagine. It’s so hard to know when you’re giving them enough, or too much… One thing we can all be sure of, though is: “OMG! Adults are dorks. They just don’t GET IT!”

  2. Mike McRae says:

    The education project I’m currently working on involves teaching about environmental sustainability and climate change. I’ve found through our focus groups and field work that the pessimistic alarmism surrounding global warming has actually done far more harm than good when it comes to kids. Their visions of a future where the world is a desert and animals are all extinct frightens many into feeling impotent, where any effort they make will be futile. We’ve found that engaging kids in open discussion and giving them the thinking tools that enable them to ask questions and encourage a more optimistic attitude created an atmosphere far more conducive to critical thinking and confidence in their own suggestions. Gone was the vague and empty ‘save the planet’ attitude, and kids were far more involved in addressing specific hopes and concerns with realistic (and admittedly some not so realistic) solutions.

  3. bananacat says:

    For people who have anxiety disorders, especially OCD, reassurance and rational thought aren’t necessarily effective treatments. It’s very common for people (even young children) who have OCD to realize that a particular fear is irrational, yet still have that phobia anyway. That’s a big part of the disease. In fact, if they could get over their fears simply by knowing that those fears are irrational, then they wouldn’t have a disorder in the first place.

    I’m sure that reasoning and reassurance will help some kids with some anxiety, especially if they are healthy and don’t have OCD. But for people with intrusive thoughts, reassurance is often useless because those people already know that their obsessions aren’t rational. Critical thinking is great, but it’s not enough to treat certain mental disorders, and I don’t like the implication that people who suffer from OCD are just being irrational.

    • I’m delighted that Mr. Guay finds Junior Skeptic valuable, but I don’t really intend to endorse any approach to mental health. My concern here is for people whose fear is fundamentally rational: they’ve been told the world might end, and that frightens them.

    • badrescher says:

      bananacat,

      Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is very effective in treating anxiety disorders such as OCD and phobias. It involves much more than simply explaining that the fears are irrational, but it must start with that understanding (and children usually do not understand that yet).

      In fact, CBT is the one non-medication treatment that we know works. It works for a limited set of disorders, but it works best for anxiety disorders. It also does not work for everyone; nothing works for everyone.

    • PaperCranes says:

      I may be nit-picking here, but as a clinical psychology doctoral student who just passed comprehensive exams I couldn’t let this one pass without commenting. First of all, there is a big difference between OCD and a phobia. In both cases, the individual is aware that the fear is irrational IF THEY ARE ADULTS. This aspect of the criteria, understanding at some point that the fear is irrational, only applies to people over the age of 18 (an arbitrary cut-off I realize but still important). So maybe teaching these children that their belief is irrational is enough for mild cases.

      Additionally, OCD is a very different disorder with a very different treatment than phobia. In the case of phobias, a person is afraid of something (an object, person, animal, event) and children often have these. Most childhood phobias, such as fear of the dark, resolve on their own during maturation. OCD on the other had is characterized by obsessive thoughts and compulsions that are often not related to the obsession itself. For example, a person with OCD who compulsively washes his/her hands may have an obsession with catching a disease or he/she may simply have to wash their hands a certain number of times to reduce anxiety about something else. For phobias, CBT or just exposure can be enough to do the trick, so to speak. For OCD you often need CBT and response prevention so that the person is not allowed to engage in their compulsion.

      While people with OCD, phobias or any other anxiety disorder are not simply being irrational, exposing these individuals to critical thinking magazines does help weaken anxiety-related beliefs through exposure to alternative explanations for feared events. This would seem especially beneficial for children, who have limited access to scientific thinking. The reason that CBT has been found so effective is because it allows for an exposure component to the treatment of anxiety disorders. The thinking is that exposure to feared objected in which the feared outcome does not occur decreases anxiety, either through classical conditioning or by generating alternative hypothesis about the relationships among objects/events. I don’t think that exposure to skeptic magazines is simply reassurance. I think it disproves anxiety-provoking beliefs, thereby decreasing a child’s initial level of anxiety enough so that they can participate in therapy. In addition, it provides children with alternative ways of viewing and understanding the world around them, which would appear to aid in the prevention of future anxiety disorders.

      In any case, I am not sure how the addition of a critical thinking magazine would be harmful. At the very least, it helps to normalize the condition by showing people with anxiety disorders that there are many people out there who are afraid of many ridiculous things.

  4. Max says:

    At least when the world doesn’t end in 2012, they’ll all be relieved and a little more skeptical.

    • Jean Mercer says:

      No, actually, the chances are that they will not be more skeptical, logical though it may be to predict that. Did you ever come across the well-known social psychological book “When Prophecy Fails”? This was a study of an end-of-the-world cult and what happened when the end did not arrive. Although a small number became disenchanted, most of the adherents were more than ever convinced of the correctness of the cult’s views, and felt that it was only because of their own compliance that the supernatural powers had refrained from destroying the world. Cognitive dissonance has the paradoxical effect of making true believers and committed cult members believe even more firmly in the prophecy when they prove not to be true.

  5. sun zoom spark says:

    For what it’s worth, I typed in “why are there” in Google, too, and the autofill also has a lot to do with earthquakes. Even the autofill for “is there” reveals concern about earthquakes (#1 is, of course, “is there a god”). To get to “is there” I had to type “is the,” and the first autofill entry under that was “is the world going to end in 2012.” Ugh.

    • Max says:

      LOL, type “is ” (with the space) to see the question that keeps people up at night.
      #2 is still “is the world going to end in 2012″
      #1 is “is lady gaga a man”

      • tmac57 says:

        I think that David Letterman might make good use of that function. Some of the ‘Google Top Ten’ are funnier that his.

      • Rokesmith says:

        In the UK version of Google one of the autofills for “Is there…” goes “Is there VAT [sales tax] on train tickets?” Rather edifying, I thought…

  6. sproutlore says:

    “MILLIONS” of kids lay awake at night worrying about the end of the world, just like you did, during the “70′s and 80′s. Really? Were you and those “MILLIONS” watching all the black and white promos for bomb shelters and methods for nuclear survival from the 50′s & 60′s? You and the “MILLIONS”, eh. What study did you get that number from?

    • Nope, that number was just a guess (based upon a quick show of hands among my own friends on Facebook). For clarity, I’ve now made it “I think probably millions.”

  7. Pete says:

    “We who grew up tall and proud, in the shadow of the mushroom cloud….”
    “Hammer to Fall”, Queen

    I think you hit the nail on the head – the harm is the miasma of fear it engenders. Like Bruce Schneier says about anti-terrorism security theater – making people afraid pays off for those who have something to sell

    • Max says:

      I thought security theater was supposed to give a false sense of security.

      • Pete says:

        @Max
        If security theater made us feel safe, the people selling security would be out of a job.

        They need us to think they are doing all that can be anticipated, but there are still threats, or we would expect the measures to be retracted once we had a resolved a threat.

  8. Alejandro says:

    I have a friend who still believes in ghosts and is a little touchy about the issue, is there any online resource like the Scooby-Doo issue that may get rid of some of her anxiety about it?

  9. billgeorge says:

    Though a strong proponent, the approach with children regarding skepticism needs delicate sensitivity and insight that perhaps adults don’t. Bogus “end of the world” predictions and like minded fears aside, the world has real terror for children living in impoverish and war ravaged locals.

    The “end of the world” happens for thousands every day – through sickness/disease alone, but I would’nt advocate for children to peruse the obituaries for a dose of realism. Scooby-Doo works well – the diffculty arises when the “why” questions that can’t be answered.

  10. Jeremy Anderson says:

    I remember several occasions at school where a fire alarm/burglar alarm went off in a nearby building, and the lesson just continued. I didn’t know the difference between that and the (fabled?) Three Minute Warning alarm, so I would be sitting there wondering how long it would take for the Russian missiles to reach us.

    Ten minutes later, we were still alive, which was nice.

  11. Trimegistus says:

    The doomsayers of the past were wrong. The 2012 doomsayers are undoubtedly wrong. And global warming . . .

    . . . is “settled” so don’t you dare express any doubts!

    • JGB says:

      Oh, You can express doubts – that’s how science works and that’s how life works (in a free country).

      Express all the doubts you want but if you want anyone to LISTEN to your doubts you’d better be A) very well informed and B) able to express those doubts coherently.

      We have a term for those who fail to do either of those but still want others to listen to them: Cranks!

  12. Shawntr says:

    I remember the sword rattlers of the both the US and USSR and knowing about the doctine of mutually assured destruction when I was 10. We’ve moved on to other topics in the news, like global warming.
    To say the world will end in 2012 because only a Mayan prophecy says so is irrational. However, it is correct to say that mankind has the technology to end civilization in minutes.

    • Max says:

      The Federation of American Scientists is still very concerned about nuclear stockpiles.

  13. 2012hoax says:

    Daniel;

    Thank you for writing this post. It is very necessary.

    My name is Bill Hudson. I’m an amateur astronomer here in California, and I have been involved in school outreach programs for astronomy for a few years.

    I began running into this question a full four years ago: “Mr. Hudson, are we all going to die in 2012?” I’m ashamed to say that I simply shrugged it off with a simple “No” at first, but the kids kept asking it, time after time, until about 2 years ago it was taking up most of the time in the Q&A segment.

    There is so much misinformation out on the internet about 2012, some of it very plausible-sounding to younger readers who may not have the critical thinking skills to discern hype from fact. Their ‘Baloney Detectors’ have not been configured yet.

    I founded a wiki at 2012hoax.org where we chase 2012 rumors down dark alleys, beat them to death with logic, then skin them and hang the bloody hides on the wall as a warning to others.

    The site is primarily visited by young people (12-20) although we occasionally get some who are younger. You would be amazed at some of the claims we have been asked about. The contributors run from people with no formal training in any relevant field, up through amateur astronomers, professional scientists, as well as graduate students in astronomy, and university professors of astronomy.

    Anyone who wants to become a part of the wiki is free to do so. Anyone who simply wants a place to send people asking ’2012′ questions now has a resource.

    Thank you.

  14. ok somebody clue me in. WHY does everyone think the world will end in the year 2012? did i miss an important movie or something.?

  15. tskepticr says:

    Boy! Someone doesn’t get the drift of this whole enterprise … distinguishing reliable information and conclusions of science and reason – from nonsense, disinformation and misinformation. No informed person should even come close to comparing 2012 doomsday nonsense to global warming. One is junk, while the other is the product of one of the most serious scientific investigations in history – with perhaps unprecedented consensus. Since this process (here) is all about recognizing and warning against baloney that harms people, this fact needs to be stressed.

  16. Luftritter says:

    I think this kind of anxieties might be somehow common. I’m a generation X so I don’t know much about the atom craze, but I had a rather similar experience with something else. It was during an evening in 1989, I was nine years old watching TV as usual. Then the ABC “Special Report” about UFO’S, the Roswell crash and alien abductions started. The bit about abductions scared me for weeks and I found the aliens specially creepy. For several years I was afraid that some of those horrible, big-headed, bug-eyed critters could appear at my bedroom window at any time. Just logic and critical thinking could cure me of my fear to the night and darkness. The thought that there was absolubtely no evidence those beings were real was incredibly comforting.

  17. Amber K says:

    We were required to read “Alas, Babylon” in jr high. I probably read a dozen other books that predicted a horrifying post-apocalyptic future plus saw a dozen movies of the same genre to boot. I think that fed a cynicism and fatalistic sarcasm that resides in my Gen-X peers to this day. It probably created as many conspiracy theorists as skeptics, but at least it inspired us to ask questions.

  18. becke says:

    2012 and aliens from outter space scare children, of course. When I was young it was hell, so I suppose every age has it monsters and disasters. I can feel the children’s terror for I was convinced that I was going to hell and for me, that produced sleepless nights and fear. A fear so real I could almost feel the fire. No one has a right to scare children that way, but many adults, sadly, believe these things themselves and don’t know how to handle it. The baloney detection kit should put a stop to that kind of erroneous thinking, but unfortunately, to a ‘true believer’ all the common sense in the world isn’t going to convince them.

  19. Personally, I don’t think it’s a bad thing that children may fear the end of the world in 2012. Come 2013, they’ll learn a valuable lesson in avoiding snake oil peddling, alarmist, tinfoil hat wearing assholes who’s only goal in life is to see how many Doritos they can down in a single serve.

  20. Livlivs11 says:

    I’m a kid and its pretty scary and as I type this I am crying I don’t know what to believe

    • I’m a kid and its pretty scary and as I type this I am crying I don’t know what to believe

      Livlivs11,

      You’re right — it does sound pretty scary, and it is hard to know what to believe when so many people say frightening things. But here’s something to remember: TV shows and book authors make more money when they say amazing, frightening things, because more people watch or buy their shows or books. That’s a good reason for you to take scary predictions with a grain of salt. (In fact, a lot of the time the people who make spooky “true” paranormal TV shows don’t believe a word they’re saying. Shame on them!)

      It turns out that scary stories about catastrophes in 2012 are just that: scary stories. They aren’t true (scientists have checked). There really is no reason for anyone to worry about 2012. It’s just another year.

      But it’s no wonder these ideas take hold of our imaginations. That’s totally natural. Sometimes when TV shows tell us to be scared, it works! And then it can really start to eat away at us. It’s hard to keep our imaginations from getting away from us when we’re afraid. And it isn’t just kids, either. I know adults who find the 2012 stories very frightening, and spend a lot of time imagining wild catastrophes that could never happen in real life.

      So don’t feel bad for thinking about these things, but try not to worry about this particular make-believe danger.

  21. Karla McLaren says:

    @Livlivs11: When I was a kid, I belonged to a spiritual group that was getting ready for a planet-wide cataclysm (where the poles would shift and all land masses would be covered by water) in the late 1970s. Obviously, that never happened, but many of the people in that spiritual group were in trouble, because they had sold their houses, cashed in their life insurance, or avoided health care or any planning for the future. Some had even moved away from their beloved California and into the middle of the US so they could maybe avoid the flooding.

    When the end didn’t come, that spiritual group said that whoops, the world would actually end in 2004 or 2005. Wrong again.

    Comets also bring about a lot of end-of-the world prophesies, and sometimes, groups form around those prophesies (which never come true either).

    Remember Y2K? That was supposed to be a big catastrophe, too, but it never happened. Humans are really pretty terrible at predicting the future.

    In psychology, there’s a term called “catastrophizing,” which is an unhealthy tendency to imagine that everything is going to fall apart. The 2012 false prophesy is just another form of catastrophizing, and there’s no truth to it. There are no mysterious planets, no Mayan end-of-the-world prophesies, no confluence of planets or comets or asteroids or any of that. It’s just another false prophesy created by catastrophe junkies.

    We’ll meet here in 2013 and laugh about it — and then, you’ll be able to help other people who will be scared by yet another world-ending false prophesy.

    The moral of the story is: Plan for the future, pay attention to responsible scientists, and be extremely skeptical of spiritual leaders or groups who try to scare you with catastrophes and/or the end of the world. They’ve always been wrong!

  22. Erica butler says:

    I hate thinking about that it gives me nightmares