Recent reports shared on WeChat about an apparently kidnapped child have highlighted the benefits and pitfalls of social media, when it comes to the safety of children.
The posts, widely shared in Beijing groups, referred to a two-year-old boy who had gone missing in Hangzhou on May 20. Several pictures and videos showed the boy, with his Chinese father and American mother.
Many parents expressed understandable concern and sympathy. Others however were uncomfortable about the vagueness of the details, and tried to find out more before sharing further.
By the evening a second post had been shared, which confirmed the child was in fact with his mother. He had not been abducted, but his parents had separated, and his father was no longer in contact with him.
Parents responded with relief and with sadness for the separated family, but the incident raises several issues. Firstly, it demonstrates once again that China does not yet have much effective legal recourse to help parents stay in touch with their children in the event of family breakdown. This problem is exacerbated when the parents are of different nationalities.
Secondly, however, it opens the question of how Beijingers can best help in cases like this, and what checks can or should be carried out before sharing such information on social media. Nobody takes their child away from their partner casually, and in some cases – though not, we must emphasize, in this one, as far as we are aware – they do so because they are fleeing domestic violence or abuse. In such a situation, helping the abuser to find their missing partner can lead to tragic consequences, even murder.
Child abduction is a real issue in China, but we have not been able to find any occasion on which a child was saved by the use of WeChat. One case in April made worldwide headlines, when a taxi driver began handing out cards with pictures of his daughter, 24 years after she disappeared. In that case though she made contact herself when she saw the story on television. And mistakes can happen. In 1996 a Henan couple were delighted to be reunited with their child, missing for three years, when a court-ordered DNA test confirmed the identification. However earlier this year the boy’s kidnapper confessed, and a completely different young man was revealed to be their real son. The couple are reported to be considering suing the court.
WeChat posts can continue to circulate long after the missing child is safely back home, causing embarrassment to the child and their family, and there are also fake videos which appear regularly, such as one purporting to show the police raiding a place where kidnapped children are being held (but filmed from a camera already inside the building.) How can concerned parents be sure that sharing is, as the saying goes, caring?
We would suggest it is best to check any information before sharing it on social media. If the person who posted it cannot personally verify that the post is truthful and current, then passing it on may do more harm than good. China has official channels for sharing information about missing children, and the chances of someone seeing a picture on WeChat then happening to spot and correctly identify that child, in a country of 1.3 billion people, are, to say the least, remote.
Please note the image used is a stock photo and does not depict a child in danger or distress
Photo: Jenny Downing via Flickr