Free-Range Kids

Stranger-Danger Panic Is Getting People Killed

"No child under the age of 10 in the United States that has ever been snatched from a parent in public and trafficked for sex."


Vadym Petrochenko / Dreamstime

Spreading stranger-danger never leads to anything good, and new technology only makes it worse.

That's the point I make in my first-ever New York Times op-ed. It was prompted by the hysteria gripping India at the moment—a fear of child snatchers.

This summer in India, two dozen innocent people died at the hands of mobs convinced that they were meting out justice to kidnappers. One was a software engineer beaten to death after giving chocolates to children outside a school. One was a 65-year-old woman who got lost on a trip to a temple with her family and stopped to ask for directions. All five travelers were stripped naked and beaten with fists, sticks, and iron rods. One was hospitalized in a coma. A woman named Rukmani died in the street. As I wrote:

This what it happens when stranger-danger runs rampant. It turns out that fear of strangers is far more dangerous than strangers themselves.

The panic began in April when a video that appears to show a child being scooped off the street by two men on a motorcycle went viral. The video was originally created in Pakistan as a public service announcement to teach parents to watch their children more closely. The end of the clip showed the child returned by the "kidnappers" who held up a sign: "It takes but a moment to snatch a child off the streets of Karachi."

I go on to compare that video with the super-popular YouTube videos purporting to show how simple it is to steal a child from the playground, as if this is a common threat (it's not). I also discuss the army of moms on Facebook who are convinced they narrowly avoided their kids being taken:

When scary rumors are repeated over and over — or watched again and again — they change the way we see the world. So now it's the rare day on Facebook when I don't come across a post like this: "My name is Amanda and I'm a Longview, Texas resident. I'm convinced that our two-year-old daughter was the victim of a potential sex-trafficking scam yesterday. I got in the checkout line at a local store early afternoon. I took my daughter out of the cart and the couple ahead struck up the typical conversation about how 'cute your daughter is.'"

Strangers — East Indians, she says — admiring her child. That's it. That's all it took for this mother to believe they were child-snatchers.

In all these social media stories, including Amanda's, no child is actually kidnapped. None of the strangers do anything more than glance or chat. Panic does the rest.

David Finkelhor, head of the Crimes Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, tells me he knows of no child under the age of 10 in the United States that has ever been snatched from a parent in public and trafficked for sex. And yet these posts get shared tens of thousands of times, usually with comments like, "So glad you're safe!" or, "Mamas, keep your babies close!"

Read the full op-ed here.