The real danger in stranger-danger

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By Lenore Skenazy . . . 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 family members 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.

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

This is 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.”

But that wasn’t what millions of Indians saw on WhatsApp. In the doctored Indian version, that ending was cut off, so the child never reappears . . . .

The clip that got so many people killed in India was probably inspired by other massively popular videos on YouTube that purport to show how easy it is to steal a child. One with 13 million views ends by claiming “Over 700 children are abducted a day.”

This is utter nonsense. In 2011, the most recent year the U.S. Department of Justice has hard numbers for, 105 American children were taken in a “stereotypical kidnapping” — that is, the kind of stranger abduction you’d see on “Law & Order.” Not per day. Per year.

But 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 Against 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 . . . .

Read the full story here at the New York Times

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