A Southern California mom, Diandra Toyos, believes that when she, her mom, and her three young kids were shopping at Ikea, they were stalked by two men aiming to "traffic" the children. She wrote a Facebook post about it that went viral.
Of course it did. It had everything that's irresistibly sharable: A feisty mom, an evil dude or two, "Swedish" (that is, Chinese) furniture, and the sex trafficking of pre-pubescent children.
What's not to like?
So, after the zillionth person sent me the link, I wrote about it in The New York Post. As I pointed out, the mom's proof of her children's near doom was this: "Something was off. We knew it in our gut. I am almost sure that we were the targets of human trafficking."
And I am almost sure they were not. Of course, if she felt uncomfortable, there was no reason not to skedaddle. But on Facebook she was telling other moms to be ultra-careful because, "this is happening all over," with no basis in fact:
Or, as I put it on my Free-Range Kids blog: "Pointlessly terrified mom warns other moms to be pointlessly terrified."
How dare I make light of such a serious situation? After all, mothers are gushing thanks for the post: "a great reminder that this kind of stuff can happen," wrote someone on Westchester Moms.
The praise is piling on — "Outstanding advice," "Good information!" — just as it did last week, when a very similar post went viral by a mom who thought kidnappers were about to snatch her baby out of her arms as she waited in line at the grocery store. (But she stared them down. Who knew kidnappers are such cream puffs?)
My point is not to make fun of the folks freaking out. My point is to try to give us all a reality check: Come on — two men are going to grab three kids, all under age 7, IN PUBLIC, in a camera-filled store, with the MOM and the GRANDMA right there, not to mention a zillion other fans of moderately priced furnishings?
Can we please take a deep breath and realize how insanely unlikely that is? How we don't need to be "warned" about this because NOTHING HAPPENED!
Of course, Reason readers know that you can tell nothing happened because the whole thing was described as an "incident." My #1 Rule of Reporting is: When something is called an "incident," it's because nothing happened.
How unlikely was this crime? I asked David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. He told me (via email):
"Child abduction rarely occurs in a crowded public venue like that, where help would be easy to muster. [Moreover] most sex-trafficking lures and abductions are of teenagers. Parents should spend their worry time on other perils."
So why don't they? The answer is in Diandra's own warning. She wrote that she'd recently read the story of yet another mom who said she and her kids had been targeted at (ironically!) Target. "I'm reading more and more about these experiences, and it's terrifying."
People are posting scary stories on Facebook that make parents paranoid, to the point where THEY post scary posts, which inspires MORE paranoia and scary posts.
That's exactly it: People are posting scary stories on Facebook that make parents paranoid, to the point where THEY post scary posts, which inspires MORE paranoia and scary posts, etc. etc.
What's worse, the effect is resonating far beyond the Facebook comment section. It is changing parenting — and childhood.
When we are warned over and over that our kids are in constant danger, even in the safest situations, we start to believe it.
From there it's just a baby step to childhood on lockdown, never letting our kids walk to school, arresting the parents who let their kids play in the park, smashing the window of the car in front of the dry cleaners, because the mom left the child napping there for three minutes. We will not tolerate parents who trust their kids and trust the odds.
Instead, gripped by hysteria, we are giving our children a childhood unlike our own — a childhood with no freedom at all — simply because someone pressed "share."
For more on misplaced paranoia about child kidnappings at IKEA, read Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown.