When Furniture Falls, We Blame the Parents

Accidents happen. Parents and companies make mistakes. But in the age of social media, extending any sort of understanding has become a rare occurrence.

Earlier this month, a terrifying video of twins climbing a dresser circulated on social media. The video, caught by security camera, shows twin brothers Brock and Bowdy Shoff climb and accidentally topple a dresser.

The camera also captures the painful-to-watch-minute during which Bowdy, after gasp-inducing trial and error, finally figures out how to pull the dresser off of his brother.

Richard and Kayli Shoff were fearful that if they shared the video they would be labeled bad parents, but chose to post the video to highlight the dangers posed by unanchored furniture. They have followed up their original posting with videos showing how to get furniture anchors and how to safely anchor a dresser.

This video has brought attention to an important safety issue. It has also raised important questions about how guilt and social shaming function in our culture.

The dangers of tipping furniture

The Shoff’s video is a good primer on the risks of unsecured furniture. At age two, Brock and Brody represent the age group most at risk for furniture-tipping injury and death.

According to a Consumer Product Safety Commission report, 360 children died from a household tipping accident between 2000 and 2013, and 65 percent of those children were between one and three-and-a-half years old.

That Brock was not seriously injured by the tipped dresser is also reflective of the typical sources of injury and death. The CPSC report separates injuries and deaths into three categories: televisions, furniture, and appliances.

Televisions are by far the most dangerous item, responsible for 74 percent of the deaths counted by the CPSC between 2000 and 2013.

The twin climbers also reflect a third trend found in the CPSC report. Of the deaths due to furniture tipping, 53 were boys and 28 were girls. That gender difference evaporated with televisions (135 boys to 132 girls).

One final trend not included in the CPSC report was the source of the dresser: IKEA.

Ikea’s recall

If you’ve ever owned a piece of IKEA furniture, you are probably familiar with the assembly instructions, which feature the smiling assembler, the helpful friend-with-pencil, and multiple pages of illustrated instructions.

Perhaps tired after inserting all those tiny dowels and screws, owners are more likely to skip the final few steps of securing furniture to the wall, even though IKEA’s manuals clearly showed anchoring instructions. Or perhaps in the U.S., where the majority of furniture is built to stand safely without anchors, consumers viewed IKEA’s anchors as an abundance of caution rather than a necessity.

In 2014, after two toddlers died under tipped dressers from its MALM line, IKEA initiated its Secure It! campaign, designed to alert consumers to the dangers of tipping furniture. In 2016, after a third toddler died from another unsecured MALM dresser, IKEA took the unprecedented step of recalling all 29 million MALM dressers sold in the U.S. before 2016. 

IKEA’s response is important because it’s the world’s largest furniture retailer. To get a sense of just how large an influence the company has, consider that IKEA uses one percent of the world’s lumber supply. It is an enormous company with enormous influence, so its decision to recall all of its MALM dressers, not only in the U.S. and Canada, but now also in China, suggests an industry-wide change in furniture safety.

Guilt meets safety shaming

Ikea’s recall – and the lawsuits that led to it – highlight another important component of the falling furniture problem. There are relatively few lawsuits and, therefore, relatively little public attention, focused on falling furniture and televisions.

One reason parents don’t know about the dangers posed by tipping furniture is that parents who have experienced this aren’t willing to talk publicly about it. ​Michael Carr, an attorney who has represented other families whose children died when dressers tipped over, suggests that parents are less likely to blame the manufacturer out of a sense of their own guilt.

Given the comments posted to the Shoff’s video, it’s no wonder that parents’ guilt may be discouraging them from speaking out. Alongside the arguments that one brother didn’t “save” the other at all, that Bowdy was a “retard” for not realizing jumping on the dresser would hurt his brother, that Bowdy didn’t care about his brother because it took him over a minute to act, there is a firehose of judgment directed at their parents.

Commenters label the Schoffs irresponsible for leaving their kids alone in the room. They are lazy for sleeping instead of watching their children. They are neglectful for not coming into the room as soon as the dresser fell. They are fame chasers for re-uploading the video a few weeks after the original posting.

It appears that the Shoff’s initial concerns about sharing the video were valid. The flood of comments on their videos, which brought more attention to their story, led the Schoffs to defend the reality of the video in a segment on Good Morning America.

In the comments section underneath that segment, viewers double down on their conspiracy theories, and, for good measure, shame the Schoffs for distracting their kids with electronics in order to talk to George Stephanopolous.

It is important for companies to build safer furniture. It is important for parents to look for sources of risk in their homes. It is important for us as a society to discuss the balance between corporate and personal responsibility. But perhaps more important than all of these issues, is the need for people to stop jumping to safety shaming in the wake of other people’s tragedies and near-tragedies.