Let’s not create a moral panic over ‘Game of 72’ rumors of disappearing kids

The French English-language news site, The Local, is reporting about a supposed game where “teenagers have come up with a new Facebook challenge that dares them disappear without a trace for up to three days without contacting their family.”

The site reports that a 13-year old girl named Emma from northern France went missing for three days but turned up safe. The site says that the girl  told authority that she had taken on a dare to play the “Game of 72” (as in disappearing for 72 hours).

The site said that French authorities have been unable to find actual Facebook postings about the game.

Fears are spreading even if the game isn’t

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 3.27.36 PMWhile the extent to which the game actually exists remains in doubt, that hasn’t stopped police authorities and media outlets from raising alarms. The Canadian Global News site reports that police in Vancouver, BC are warning parents about the game, which, according to the site, requires that kids not “tell anyone where they are and the more mayhem and panic that is caused, the more points that teen is awarded.” Vancouver police are not aware of any actual cases of the game. British tabloid, Mirror, speculates that the game might have been responsible for the temporary disappearance of a couple of schoolgirls, but there is only speculation — no real evidence.

My concern is that the more media attention this gets, the more likely it is that some kids might actually try it.

Moral panics

While such a game — if it actually exists — is indeed troubling, the stories about it strike me as yet another example of the endless series of moral panics over children’s online safety. The past two decades have been full of media stories about children endangered by online threats beginning with concerns over pornography and then what the “predator panic” of about a decade ago when parents were receiving regular warnings about online predators trolling for their children. The TV show “To Catch a Predator” didn’t calm any fears nor did the many state Attorneys General who issued stern warnings about a problem that, statistically, turned out to be extremely rare. That panic subsided after numerous research reports (and a task force convened by 49 attorneys general, the Internet Safety Technical Task Force that concluded that the threat was far less than had been reported).

There have been other moral panics involving youth including cyberbullying and sexting which, generally, turn out to be far less of an issue than many fear. That’s not to say that kids aren’t been affected by these things — bullying has had a severe impact on some children and there are genuine cases of sexting gone wrong that’s been quite hurtful — but exaggerating the risk and the consequences doesn’t help anyone. What I believe does help is research-based information such as these sexting tips and A Parents’ Guide to Cyberbullying from ConnectSafely.org, the non-profit Internet safety organization where I serve as CEO.

Talk with your children

As always, stories about so-called threats like the Game of 72 represent an opportunity for parents to speak with their children. This is a great time to sit down with your kids to ask if they have ever heard of such a game and let them know what you think about it. Or maybe just speak with your kids about something else — almost anything. It’s not about lecturing or warning but about communicating and staying in close touch. Remember, most kids don’t play dangerous games even though nearly all teens test their limits in ways that are mostly healthy.