Imagine you're on a busy sidewalk rushing to work, running an errand or simply out for a stroll, when suddenly you notice a little boy standing all alone. Is he really lost? Do you stop to find out?
To find out what people would do in this situation, ABC News hired four young actors, two boys and two girls, all 7 years old and dressed in everyday clothes. The children took turns standing on the corner of a well traveled street in a city near New York with various hidden cameras planted nearby.
Each child was equipped with a device in his or her ear so that ABC News producers could communicate with them from a surveillance van nearby. ABC News also hired two plainclothes policemen to keep close watch nearby and to ensure safety. The parents of the child actors also watched from a surveillance room at a nearby restaurant.
Initially, we asked the children to stand in one place and look scared and frightened. Halle, the first actor to participate, walked out to the street corner and acted like a lost child, looking around for help with no guardian in site. A woman stopped almost immediately because, she said, she sees this sort of thing all the time.
But this woman turned out to be the exception. Most people walked right on by. In fact, during our two-day experiment, almost 2,000 people walked by and only 47 stopped to help the "lost children."
It's easy to assume that it only happens to other families or just in the movies: We think that losing a child, even if just for a moment, can't or won't happen to us.
But it does happen. Thousands of kids get lost every day, more than 90 percent of all families will experience it at least once, although the vast majority of lost children are recovered within minutes.
The experiment continued with actor Alexis, who stood on the street corner acting lost and frightened. Several minutes pass, and many adults walked by, but no one stopped to help or even ask if she was OK.
"It is just not acceptable to walk past a child like that and do nothing," said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and one of the people who helped design this experiment. "A young child on the sidewalk of any American city by themselves is vulnerable, they are at risk."
In fact, if a parent or caregiver leaves a small child alone on the street it could be a crime. Even so, back on the sidewalk minutes ticked by, and one stranger after another walked by the "lost" child. "People are so preoccupied on their cell phones or paying attention to other things, or in a hurry to get somewhere else," Allen said. "Far too often we just don't look at what's going on around us."
Many people did look. But they told us that they saw no cause for concern. "She looked cold, she didn't look scared, so I kept walking," passerby Mariellen Zeleck said. "I didn't think she was lost. I thought she was waiting for somebody."
As the experiment continued, we realized that whether the actor was male or female, some people assume that a parent is nearby and that maybe the child is having a time out. "I was looking back and noticing that she was still by herself and wondering if a parent or caretaker was around her," pedestrian Alysan Whelan said.
The people who consistently passed by Alexis seemed to assume that nothing was wrong. But experts said a lost child often masks distress.