The Kidnapping Hysteria

Posted: Mar 28, 2007 12:01 AM
The Kidnapping Hysteria

If you have kids, you are probably worried about them being kidnapped. Your kids are probably worried about it, too. How could they not be after seeing all the publicity about abducted children?

In television public-service announcements the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children warns, "Every day 2,000 children are reported missing." Center president Ernie Allen told me, "Our goal is to reach into every home and to generate that key lead that leads to the recovery of a child. We need to send a message to the American public that this is serious."

That's a noble goal, but there is a downside. Kids tell me that all the talk on television about kidnapping worries them. Dozens of 7-to-12-year-olds I interviewed for "20/20" said abduction was their biggest fear. One little boy said he worries every night "because I'm asleep and I don't know what's gonna happen."

Scaring kids might be justified if abductions were common. But the media makes the problem look far bigger than it is. The stereotypical kidnapping, where a child is abducted by a stranger and murdered, ransomed, or kept for a significant period of time, rarely happens. In fact, there are only 100 or so such cases every year.

Those abductions are tragic, but kids are more likely to be caught up in a tornado. Maybe we should have warnings about that, with lots of pictures to put everyone on edge.

The Center for Missing Children is a piece of the Fear Industrial Complex. It raises money by scaring us.

Businesses also profit from our fear. Brinks Security pushes apprehension about child abduction in commercials for home security systems. One terrifying ad is reminiscent of classic horror movies.

And we in the media profit from fear.

"For the media, child kidnapping is a gold mine," says David Glassner, author of the Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things.

"It can go on for weeks. It's not a one-shot thing. The child is still gone, you can keep following it. Is there a new lead? Then finally, if they're discovered, that's the grand finale."

Nancy Grace has become a CNN superstar by featuring grisly crimes including child kidnappings, complete with an upbeat soundtrack. And NBC's "To Catch a Predator" has become a call to arms for parents by making it seem as if nearly everyone online is out to sexually solicit your kids.

The media have parents scared stiff, says Dan McGinn, who runs focus groups. Some parents won't let their kids out of their sight.

"When they talk about their kids and the risk of kidnapping, the numbers become irrelevant. It doesn't matter if it's 100 kids in the United States or 10,000. They really believe 'it's my child and I could minimize that risk,'" McGinn told us.

During a focus group McGinn assembled for "20/20," parents said things like, "I won't let [my son] go to the restroom by himself" and "I do not let [my kids] go out by themselves in the yard, not even the front yard."

All this worry can't be good for our kids. One child told me, "Anyone could just grab me at any time. A lot more kids are getting kidnapped."

But more kids are not getting kidnapped.

Ernie Allen concedes the point. "The numbers of non-family abductions have been remarkably constant over the years."

But if that's true, isn't his organization needlessly scaring parents and children to death?

"We're trying very hard not to scare people."

But a child is much more likely to be hurt running into the street than kidnapped by a stranger.

"We don't want you to feel like you have to lock your child into a room and never let them out of your sight, " Allen says.

But his message certainly encourages people to do that.

That's a shame. Kids would benefit from being allowed to play in the yard or walk to school by themselves. They should be more vigilant about reckless drivers than potential kidnappers. They would learn to worry about the real risks.

Next week: what we should and shouldn't worry about.