If anything’s guaranteed to work parents of small children into a complete and instant panic, it’s mention of kidnappers lurking at local playgrounds. To wit: a YouTube video aiming to warn moms and dads of such abductions is quickly going viral, drawing more than a million views and steadily climbing since being posted on Saturday. It’s the work of popular video blogger Joey Saladino, known by his huge online following as extreme prankster JoeySalads.
“As I was thinking of extreme prank ideas, I had an idea where I would abduct a child, but I can’t abduct random people’s kids, so I scrapped the idea,” Saladino, 21, tells Yahoo Parenting. “Then I thought, I wonder how easy it would be to abduct someone else’s child? I thought I should put this to the test because no one has ever tried it, and I thought: Are kids actually safe from predators?”
So he proceeded with what he calls his “social experiment.” After getting permission from three parents who were watching their kids play in New York City parks, Saladino approached each child with his cute puppy, and then asked if they’d like to come with him to see more. Three out of three said yes, to each mom’s apparent shock. “No parent knows how their child would react to a stranger,” says Saladino, who has made a lucrative career with his videos, drawing more than 282,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel and more than 69,000 Twitter followers. “So that’s why I had to put it to the test.”
YouTube prankster Joey Saladino’s video warning about child abductions has gone viral (Photo: Joey Salads)
But his test is nothing new or surprising, according to Nancy McBride, executive director for the Florida regional office of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Kids. “It’s been done a hundred times,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “And young children are easily tricked, which is why we tell parents they have to stay with their young kids.” She also notes that the results of Saladino’s video are hardly accurate. “A really important piece to me is that this guy sat down with each mom, which I’m sure the kids saw,” she says. “So the perception [for them] is that this guy’s okay.”
Saladino notes in his video that 700 kids are abducted each day, presumably in the way he’s warning viewers about, and he tells Yahoo Parenting that he got that number from McBride’s agency. McBride says it’s unclear which stat he was referencing, but points out that one of the biggest numbers, that of all the kids who were reported missing in 2014 — around 467,000 — includes runaways, parental abductions, kids who got lost, and more. Regarding kids being snatched by strangers in the way Saladino warns about, she and others in the field point to statistics showing that the majority of abductions don’t go down in this way.
“Only about 100 children (a fraction of 1%) are kidnapped each year in the stereotypical stranger abductions you hear about in the news,” note stats from the Polly Klaas Foundation, which provided the literature, “Child Safety Kit: Teach Abduction Prevention Without Scaring Your Child (or Yourself),” as its response to Saladino’s video.
In such rare cases, though, McBride did point out that Saladino’s cute-animal lure is among the top five tricks used by strangers — with the others including the promise of money, candy, a ride, or just simply asking a question. “We know little kids will fall for the tricks, so when we’re teaching our children, we need to stick to what’s being used,” she says. “And there’s nothing like a fluffy puppy.”
Lenore Skenazy, noted “Free Range Parenting” author and reality TV star, finds the video’s fuzzy facts, fear tactics, and overall message to be extremely troubling. “Thanks, Mr. Salads,” she writes on her blog. “You have emptied the parks, locked children inside, and frozen parents’ hearts, with a big lie.” She also notes, like McBride, that clearly the kids in the video saw him speaking to the parents in his “bizarre scenario that he calls an experiment,” and that she strongly disagrees with the idea that parents should teach kids not to talk to strangers.
“Mr. Salads asks parents if they’ve taught their kids not to talk to strangers — a lesson I don’t endorse, since most strangers are good and you want kids to feel confident asking strangers for help, if they need it,” Skenazy writes. “’You can TALK to anyone, you cannot go OFF with anyone,’ is the advice I prefer.”
McBride agrees. “When well-intentioned professionals and parents/guardians use the phrase ‘stranger danger’ it may mistakenly convey only strangers harm children,” she writes in an online piece. “The message of ‘never talk to strangers’ does not fully educate children about how to stay safer… This is why the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children does not support the ‘stranger danger’ message. The majority of cases have shown most children are not taken by a stranger, but rather are abducted by someone they know.”
Saladino, meanwhile, is standing by his message despite the torrent of criticism. “All I am trying to do is protect children,” he says. “A parent can turn their head one minute to talk to a friend, and the kid is gone.”