Experts warn against teaching the phrase 'stranger danger'

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is warning parents.

ByABC News
March 31, 2017, 8:11 AM

— -- The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is now encouraging parents to steer away from using the phrase "stranger danger," a slogan that has been taught for decades to emphasize to children the potential threat posed by strangers.

Although the group moved away from “stranger danger” years ago, the phrase is so pervasive that many parents still teach it. The group renewed their call to end its use on “Good Morning America” today.

"It’s so easy, it rhymes," Callahan Walsh, a child advocate at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, told ABC News. "It’s just this one phrase, blanket statement, but it really doesn’t fit all scenarios and that’s why we want to re-think stranger danger."

He said that the group wants to put an end to using the phrase for three reasons, including the fact that a child is much more likely to be harmed by someone the child knows, and that many children do not fully understand the concept of a "stranger."

Lastly, Walsh added, "Oftentimes kids are in a situation where they will need to reach out to a stranger for help, whether they're just being lost, or if there's an actual abduction."

ABC News' T.J. Holmes designed an experiment with Walsh involving 10 children in grades 2 through 4 at an elementary school in Haddonfield, New Jersey, to see if they would reach out for help from a stranger when in a dangerous situation.

All of the children were familiar with the phrase "stranger danger," and when asked about it, offered their own interpretations of what it means.

"Like if a stranger comes, you want to just say like you can't help them and just keep walking," one child explained. "You should never trust them," another child said of strangers.

Another young girl understood the phrase as "don't take candy from people."

As part of the experiment, ABC News hired four actors to play a range of roles, including a security guard, a mother with kids, a store clerk and an average Joe.

The guard, mother and clerk all had identifiable markers that signify a safe adult -- including a badge, a baby and a name tag, according to Walsh. In a dire situation, a child should feel empowered to reach out to any of these strangers who possess the markers that signify they can be trusted for help.

Walsh asked the children what they would do if they were in a store shopping with their parents and then suddenly could not find their mother or father.

"You couldn't find them," Walsh told the elementary school students. "And you saw some of these people in the store with you. Are these some of the people you might reach out to for help?"

One 9-year-old boy named Zac said, "They're all strangers and you would never talk to a stranger unless you know them." When asked if he would ask the mother with kids, the security guard or the store clerk with a name tag, Zac responded that he would not ask any of them.

James, also 9, told ABC News that he would not ask the mother with kids for help either, but added, "If I can't find them and it takes a long time," then he said would leave the store and look for his parents at the car.

One child, 8-year-old Connolly, responded that she would not ask the average Joe for help, but she would talk to the security guard.

In the end, the person that the students felt the most comfortable approaching was the store clerk, with the mother and the security guard tied for the second. Not one child said they would choose the average Joe if they decided to ask someone for help.

Walsh said that children "should be taught that if they're ever approached or asked, 'help me look for a puppy' or 'help me find where I'm going'" then that should be a red flag, and "children should always be taught to say 'no' to an adult that approaches them."

He added, however, that children should be taught, however, that "if they're in an emergency situation, they may need to reach out to a stranger for help."

Walsh reiterated the "identifiable markers" for knowing what strangers may be safe for a child to approach, including the mother with children, a store clerk with a name tag and a security guard with a badge.

"We want parents to re-think 'stranger danger' because we’ve been able to do the analysis of these attempted abductions for over a decade. We know there are certain trends, how kids are being abducted, when they’re being abducted and 'stranger danger' just doesn’t fit that model," Walsh said.