David Schwebel’s quest to keep children out of harm’s way began with a big purple dinosaur. When the UAB psychology professor was an undergraduate at Yale University, he knew he wanted to work with kids even though he was "naive" about how to go about doing that. So he approached a professor doing research in the field, and it just so happened the professor needed help studying a new TV show— Barney & Friends.
As an undergraduate, Schwebel
"It was just so exciting to influence millions of kids," he says. "So when
Schwebel’s mentor wanted to see if children were actually learning something when they watched Barney, a purple T. rex, cavort around the studio. “We discovered that it was actually fantastically successful,” says Schwebel. The Yale researchers gave Barney’s producers some ideas on ways to increase kids’ learning even more, and the show was tweaked based on that feedback. “It was just so exciting to influence millions of kids,” Schwebel says. “So when I went to graduate school, I decided to do something that would make a difference in people’s lives.”
Since coming to UAB in 2001, Schwebel has done just that. In a series of intriguing, headline-grabbing experiments, he has highlighted the dangers in a range of childhood activities, from crossing the street to playing on a playground and taking a swim at the local pool.
Schwebel’s fieldwork has taken him to local hockey rinks, Iowa cornfields, and communities in Africa and China. As often as not, though, his experiments are based in the Youth Safety Lab in UAB’s Campbell Hall, where danger lurks behind every door. Open one and you’ll find a virtual-reality crosswalk designed to test kids’ decision-making as pedestrians. Down the hall is a contraption, topped by a toy frog, that seeks to determine a teen’s grasp of what is and is not physically possible. Another room contains a scale model of a busy intersection, complete with lights, crosswalks, and a giant mechanical centipede that crosses streets.
These unusual pieces of scientific equipment have helped Schwebel learn some important lessons about child safety—and translate his findings into action that has helped thousands of children around the world.
Lesson 1: Psychology Matters
“There are very few psychologists in the field of youth safety,” says Schwebel. “There are problems where psychology doesn’t help much, of course. Child-resistant caps are a brilliant invention, for example—and you need an engineer to come up with that. But it’s clear that there are certain places where psychological strategies are very effective.”
One recent example is Schwebel’s work in South Africa on kerosene safety. “In low-income neighborhoods, many people have no electricity, so they use kerosene for cooking, light, and heat,” Schwebel says. The kerosene isn’t stored safely or in proper containers, however, which often results in fires, poisoning incidents, and other accidents, often involving children. “So we did door-to-door visits using psychological principles to get people to store their kerosene more safely,” Schwebel says. “Part of the problem is getting people the proper containers, but the other part is convincing them to actually change what they’ve been doing.”
Lesson 2: Know What You Can Change – and What You Can’t
In summer 2011, Schwebel visited China as part of a Fulbright Specialist Scholars Award. “I went over there completely open-minded,” he says. “We could do research in any area.” Schwebel asked a public health official to list the three types of childhood injuries that caused the most deaths in the region, and the official named pedestrian accidents, drowning, and dog bites.
“I spent time in a school and looked at traffic patterns, and I realized that psychology can only do so much about the pedestrian deaths,” Schwebel says. “I can get parents to hold their kids’ hands when they cross the street, which they weren’t always doing, for example. But putting in crosswalks and pedestrian bridges and getting people to slow down and stay in their lanes is going to work better.
“Then I looked at drowning and surveyed the geography of the area,” Schwebel continues. “There are rice paddies, ponds, rivers, and lakes all over, and kids are going to get into them. They don’t teach their kids to swim, so I recommended that they start there, but that’s a large-scale issue I can’t tackle.
“So I moved on to dog bites, and that had more promise. You’ve got stray dogs walking around the neighborhood; a lot of them have rabies. If we taught kids how to act when a dog is near them, then that would probably reduce dog-bite incidents. That’s what we’ll focus on.” Schwebel is now working with Chinese collaborators and school officials to move toward implementing a classroom-based training program.
Lesson 3: What Parents Don’t Know Can Hurt Their Kids
“What I’ve found, around the world, is that parents underestimate risk in general,” Schwebel says. “That’s just human nature. They tend to think they’re not vulnerable—that it will happen to someone else’s child, not their own.”
In the kerosene study in Africa, for example, “we found that parents had some sense that kerosene is dangerous, but they didn’t recognize how dangerous it is and how likely an injury is.”
American parents have their own blind spots. “I think most American parents recognize that a six-year-old can’t cross the street safely, but yet when they’re crossing the parking lot at the grocery store, many parents don’t watch their child as carefully as they should,” Schwebel says.
In a 2009 study, Schwebel and UAB doctoral student Joanna Gaines set up rooms in the Youth Safety Lab to mimic a typical toddler’s bedroom, living room, and bathroom. Then they added a range of safety hazards to each room, including marbles, overloaded electrical outlets, and bottles of prescription medication.
The researchers asked new parents, day-care workers, and health-care professionals to identify the hazards. The parents got the highest scores, but even they were able to spot only 47 percent of the household dangers. “Parents in general overestimate the safety of their children,” Schwebel says.
Lesson 4: There’s Much More to Do
Children can be taught to be more mindful of the dangers in their surroundings, Schwebel says, but training their parents and caregivers can be more effective.
The Youth Safety Lab has developed an intervention called Stamp-In-Safety for day-care workers and others who supervise kids on playgrounds. The program teaches adults to be mindful of dangerous areas and behavior, but it also encourages them to reward children for safe behavior as well. Schwebel’s team has proved the protocol’s effectiveness at local facilities, and recently received funding to disseminate Stamp-In-Safety more broadly.
“The most exciting studies for me are the ones that have the potential to improve human life the most,” Schwebel says. “Stamp-in-Safety is one of my favorites. We’ll probably save some lives, and we’re going to prevent a lot of broken legs and arms. The work in Africa and in China is very exciting because of the number of people affected, and I’m doing some work in Italy and Japan as well. The prospect of my research influencing human health and happiness is very exciting.”
—Written by Matt Windsor