Stop fear mongering about “stranger danger”

This topic has been covered by some others but it is one I found interesting to cover on my blog. This is something I was largely all on the train for for a really long time, especially with how my parents handled it when I was a kid and what I was taught in school. Essentially, this post will cover some basic points as to why we should stop propagandizing about stranger danger.

Most kids in America today are told the basic phrase “don’t talk to strangers!” and things of the like. Parents have become very afraid of the possibility their child will be captured and molested, and this is obviously a valid fear. Though, it is regularly taken too far, and very simple situations are blown far out of proportion.

For example, in 2015, two Maryland parents were actually put under investigation for child neglect after letting their two children, ages 10 and 6, walk a mile home from the park. An article on the story reads “Police picked up the children near the Discovery building, the family said, after someone reported seeing them” and continues from the parents’ perspective “The Meitivs say their son told police that he and his sister were not doing anything illegal and are allowed to walk.” It seems silly the police would put two parents under full investigation simply for letting their children walk home. An even bigger story, covered in The Washington Post, was simply about a mother who let her nine-year old son ride the New York City subway home. Her son arrived home safely, with no problems, but she went on to be labelled America’s worst mom by all the major news organizations.

Many have decried this action because, while the kid did get home safely, it doesn’t mean he was certain to. Obviously, this is true. The issue is pretending this is in any way a likely scenario.

In an article by Ingraham (2015), the author uses data from the FBI to track the chances of being abducted as a child each year. And he finds that since 1997, reports of missing children are down by about 40 percent, the lowest they have been since then.

Furthermore, there is a lot of problems with the missing persons label. To many people, their first assumption is it is the result of abduction by strangers. However, it includes many other things, largely abduction by another family member, such as the former spouse during a divorce/custody battle, as well as simply runaways. Reuters Staff (2019) wrote on this issue,

Hundreds of thousands of juveniles are reported missing to the Federal Bureau of Investigation each year. The circumstances of the disappearance is only recorded about half the time, but in cases where they are, only 0.1 percent are reported as having been abducted by a stranger. The vast majority, typically more than 95 percent, ran away.

And we can also look to a 2002 report done by U.S. Department of Justice on this matter. Table 3 uses the data on reported missing children in order to assess the actual reasons children became missing. As is seen below, of reported missing children, 45 percent were runaways, 8 percent went missing on accident, 43 percent went missing without explanation, 7 percent were due to within family abductions, and less than 2 percent were non-family abductions, aka the stranger danger we’re all warned so much about. In fact the rate of being abducted by a stranger is so low, they actually put a footnote for it, stating, “Estimate is based on an extremely small sample of cases; therefore, its precision and confidence interval are unreliable”, meaning it is still even lower than this.

Looking at specifically children abducted by strangers, it it is clearly incredibly rare. Reuters Staff (2019) writes,

On average, fewer than 350 people under the age of 21 have been abducted by strangers in the United States per year since 2010, the FBI says. From 2010 through 2017, the most recent data available, the number has ranged from a low of 303 in 2016 to a high of 384 in 2011 with no clear directional trend.

Of all missing children, they almost always make it home alive. Goldberg (2012) writes,

The likelihood of finding an abducted child has sharply increased in recent years due to technological advances in the way searches are conducted and a greater awareness that fast action saves lives, said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
That has boosted the recovery rate for missing children involved in the most dangerous cases in America to 97 percent in 2011 from 62 percent in 1990, according to the center’s statistics. That rate is even higher when it includes all missing children, not just the highest-risk cases, which include abductions by a stranger or a family member wanted on a felony arrest warrant, Allen said.
“More than 99 percent of children reported missing in America in recent years have come home alive,” Allen told Reuters.
The recovery rate for the estimated 115 children abducted by strangers each year, a very small but alarming segment of children reported missing annually, is less heartening. Allen said an average of 57 percent of them come home alive and 40 percent are killed. The rest remain open cases.
Questions about successful efforts to find an abducted child, dead or alive, were raised by the resumed search for Patz, a 6-year-old boy who vanished in 1979 near his New York City home, and an investigation into the disappearance of Celis, 6, from her Tucson bedroom last week.

So all in all, an incredibly small amount of children are abducted by strangers: of these ~115 that are, over half make it back alive. Of course, this is problematic for the rest of them, and this does not take into account damages done from sexual abuse. But, it appears the chances of being stolen, raped and killed as a child are incredibly small.

For comparison, parents seem to have no problem giving their children rides to school compared to letting them walk. In the United States alone, there are six million car crashes per year; of these, over 37,000 were fatal. And among these crashes, over 1,600 children under the age of 16 are killed. So, take 115*0.43=49 children killed from strangers each year against the 1,600 killed by simply being in a car. The chances of a child dying from their parents driving them to school is 32 times more likely than if the child were to walk by themselves to school (which would be marginally larger compared to the chances of death if their parent walked with them to school).

I’ll also quickly note on some hypothetical development problems: telling children not to interact with strangers seems pretty obviously a method of decreasing their social behavior and therefore limiting their potential to make friends in school and whatnot in the future. It also makes it more difficult for them to ask strangers in situations where they may need help, which may in fact lead to more deaths. Finally, there is not much reason to think stranger danger practice even works, because the child’s brain is not developed enough to properly discriminate between people and so would not even understand the differences between strangers and non-strangers.

All in all, stranger danger is an unwarranted cause to stand for. The data clearly suggests being abducted by a stranger is not only very rare, but increasingly so. Demonization of parents for letting their kids walk home, and especially entire police investigations of parents for the matter are thus incredibly unjustified and horrifying to see.

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