They are looking for Etan Patz again. He was 6 years old when he went missing in New York City in 1979, a disappearance that, along with those of several other children in just a couple years, helped spark a nationwide paranoia about child abduction. That fear far exceeds the actual danger, and demonstrates just how irrational risk perception can be, especially when it comes to the safety of our kids. But the renewed search for Etan brings also reminds me, painfully, that it can also be dangerous if you’re too rational about risk.
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It was 1992. I was a TV reporter in Boston. The woman caller was frantic, crying, screaming into the phone that her ten-year-old daughter was missing. The mother begged us to come do a story right away! But heartbreaking as her fear was, I told her that we got calls like this all the time, and couldn’t just rush out and cover every case. I knew the fear of child abduction had been overblown, in large part by media types like me, and I didn’t want to contribute to such disproportionate fears any further. To this day I wish I had handled things differently.
A few years earlier I might not have been so coldly rational. Certainly not back in 1985, when I was so deeply moved while reporting on the disappearance of nine year-old Sarah Pryor who disappeared while walking in her safe suburban neighborhood. That story was Boston’s contribution to the burgeoning national paranoia about child abduction that had been triggered by the disappearance of Etan Patz in 1979 and six year-old Adam Walsh from a mall in Florida in 1981. In just a few years America had witnessed an explosion of one of our most innate fears, the fear that our kids will be harmed, a fear that prompts us to do all sorts of things in the name of protecting our kids, some of which might well be harming them instead.
New laws were quickly passed. A special FBI unit on child abduction was set up. Communities across the country conducted emergency education programs for parents on how to keep their kids safe. Unsupervised outdoor play? Forget it! Letting your kids go into town without supervision? Forget it! Walk them to school. Wait with them at the school bus stop. Never leave them alone!!!
Milk companies put the faces of missing children on their cartons, for every other kid to see. New Jersey fingerprinted schoolchildren. Some dentists offered paranoid parents the twisted reassurance of having identifying numbers etched into their children’s teeth—so that their remains could be identified.
By the time the phone rang that day some years later, I had reported that this fear was an irrational overreaction, that while hundreds of thousands of children go missing in the United States each year, after you eliminate the cases of family abduction and runaways, and even kids who are snatched by strangers but who get home okay, the number of children kidnapped and harmed had held steady for decades at only about 100-200 per year. Held steady! There was no “new epidemic” of child abduction. (The current statistics are about the same.)
Still, I checked with the police, and a few hours later I went out to report on the story because child abduction was still high profile news. It still is, of course, because any risk to kids evokes more fear than the same risk if it affects only adults. But that fear comes with costs.
It makes us vulnerable to marketers. A battery company recently featured a commercial in which a frantic mother in a park, looking for her missing son, activated a battery-operated device her son was wearing that beeped so she could find him. Protect your kids. Buy our batteries.
It makes us vulnerable to advocates. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics recently attacked a shampoo manufacturer because an ingredient found in many of their products can produce tiny traces of a byproduct that, at much higher doses, may be carcinogenic. The campaign dramatized this tiny risk by focusing on the presence of this ingredient in children’s shampoo.
Our excessive fear for our kids may even be impeding our efforts to keep our kids safe. The AMBER Alert notification system was established in response to the ongoing threat of child abduction (and named in honor of Amber Hagerman, a nine-year-old child who was abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas in 1995). It encourages law enforcement to work with media organizations and other sources of public information (those electronic information signs along highways) to immediately notify the public when kids go missing, since when children are kidnapped and killed, in most cases the child dies within the first few hours of the abduction.
It seems like a great idea. But excessive fear may be leading to overuse and threatening the system’s effectiveness. An investigation by the Scripps Howard News Service in 2005 found dozens of cases in which AMBER Alerts were put out for kids who police knew were just lost in the woods, or who had run away or left their backpack at school, or alerts that were issued for vague circumstances that appeared to bystanders to possibly be abductions, but nobody had reported any missing kids. Half the alerts in the Scripps Howard investigation were for children who had been taken by relatives, not the kind of abduction for which the system was set up. Several experts in the report worried that the false alarms were weakening the effectiveness of the system because the public would stop taking seriously calls for help from a system that is so frequently crying “Wolf!”
By the time I got to the apartment complex where the missing girl was last seen, the police were gone and the search was over. I interviewed a few kids who were running around. They told me about the groundskeeper who had been extra friendly with the local children, and who had lots of photographs of young kids, some of them only partly dressed, on his apartment walls. I never tried to find that groundskeeper, never interviewed the mother. I didn’t want to fan the flames of this overblown fear.
The girl’s body was found a few days later in nearby woods, and a few weeks later, the groundskeeper – the one I never tried to find, who had been interrogated by the police – committed suicide. To this day I wonder whether, had I reacted differently to that desperate mother on the phone and moved faster, or had I tried to find the groundskeeper, or had I done something else, whether just possibly the end might have been different.
The rational me knows that such second-guessing makes no sense. The statistics say that the girl was dead hours before I got there, probably before the desperate mother even called our newsroom. But then, risk perception isn’t just a matter of rationality and facts. Our special fear about risks to kids runs deep, far deeper than careful conscious objective reasoning, the kind I tried to use that day as a reporter to help the public keep this risk in perspective. I’ve been away from daily reporting for more than a decade, and forgotten most of the stories I covered. But I still can’t drive by the spot where they found that girl’s body, or Sarah Pryor’s old house, without remembering…without hurting.
(This is an abridged version of a section of Chapter Three of “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Match the Facts”. The entire chapter, describing the psychological characteristics that make some risks feel scarier than others, is available free online.)