Girish Mahajan (Editor)

Stranger danger

Updated on
Share on FacebookTweet on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Reddit

Stranger danger is the danger presented to children and adults by strangers. The phrase stranger danger is intended to sum up the danger associated with adults whom adults or children do not know. The phrase has found widespread usage and many children will hear it during their childhood lives. Many books, films and public service announcements have been devoted to helping children remember this advice. The concept has been criticized for ignoring that most child abductions and harm result not from strangers, but rather from someone the child knows.



Although there are other dangers such as kidnapping for ransom, the main threat with which stranger danger campaigns are concerned is sexual abuse. In recent years, the emphasis of such campaigns has shifted somewhat, in order to reflect the risk of abuse by persons known to the child. Common phrases children will hear include:

  • Don't talk to strangers
  • Don't walk with strangers
  • Don't accept gifts from strangers
  • Don't accept food or drinks from strangers
  • Don't accept candy or sweets from strangers
  • Don't talk to strangers when they ask for directions, ask you to pet their dog or tell you a parent is injured or in an accident
  • If ever approached by a stranger, tell a parent or an adult whom you trust
  • Don't get into a car with strangers or enter a stranger's house
  • If you are approached by a stranger near your school, immediately return to your school and tell a staff member
  • Don't communicate with strangers using text messages on cellular phones. If strangers attempt to contact you using text messages on cellular phones, tell the police, a parent, or an adult that you can trust.
  • Don't communicate with strangers using e-mail on the computer. If strangers attempt to contact you using e-mail on the computer, tell the police, a parent, or an adult that you can trust.
  • Some proponents of stranger danger propose telling children that it is safe to talk to strangers in circumstances where the child is in danger, such as if the child is lost or injured. In such circumstances, avoiding potentially helpful strangers could, itself, be dangerous. Conversely, other proponents of stranger danger warnings propose teaching children never to approach others without parental permission. This admonishment extends to not entering a car, even if the child recognizes the driver.

    Child identification

    In addition to stranger danger warnings, programs from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, local law enforcement agencies and other organizations offer free fingerprinting services usually done in schools, child care centers, shopping malls, fairs, and festivals. Parents/guardians are provided with child identification sheets to use in cases of child abduction and other emergencies. Child identification sheets include the child's fingerprints, photo and other personal data. Neither the FBI nor any other law enforcement agency retains this information. DNA samples are also provided to parents.


    In the wake of the July 2011 murder of Leiby Kletzky, New York City Councilman David Greenfield said he would propose “Leiby’s Law,” a bill under which businesses could volunteer to be designated as safe places for children who are lost or otherwise in trouble. Employees would undergo background checks and business owners would put a green sticker in their store windows so children would know the business is a safe place to get help. On August 16, 2011, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office announced a similar program called “Safe Stop”. As of August, 2011, 76 stores had signed up to display a green “Safe Haven” sticker in their windows to help lost children.


    Constantly warning children of possible danger in the form of strangers has also been criticised as exaggerating the potential threat and unnecessarily spreading mistrust, especially when considering that (for example) in the US, about 800,000 children are reported at least temporarily missing every year, yet only 115 "become victims of what is viewed as classic stranger abductions".

    Only 10 percent of the child victimizers in violent crimes are strangers, and sex offenses are the crimes least likely to involve strangers as perpetrators.

    In circumstances where the child is in danger for other reasons, avoiding strangers (who might help) could in fact be dangerous itself, such as in the case of an 11-year-old Boy Scout who avoided rescue searchers because he feared they may want to 'steal him'.

    According to the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center, stranger danger evokes more fear than abusers known to the child. This is because we have to operate on the basis of trust and reciprocity with acquaintances and it's hard to view acquaintances as threatening or fear them.

    Stranger danger has contributed to parents keeping children indoors, resulting in an alleged nature deficit disorder.

    In the United Kingdom

    In the United Kingdom, stranger danger has long been a key theme in the safety of children. The potential danger of a child being abused or killed by a stranger has been seen as a major factor in children having less freedom from the mid 20th century onwards, although factors including increased road traffic (increasing the risk of being run over) have also been deemed as factors in parents becoming more protective of their children in more recent years.

    The conviction of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley of the Moors Murders in 1966 was seen by many as the event which led to parents allowing their children less freedom - as well as making parents and children more alert of the fact that there are also dangerous women as well as dangerous men. The brother of one of Brady and Hindley's victim recalled many years later that his murdered brother had been regularly warned not to accept sweets or lifts from strange men, but had never been told not to speak to or go anywhere with a strange woman, as few people at the time were aware that a strange woman could be potentially as dangerous as a strange man. Although similar murders were nothing new in Britain even in the 1960s, the fact that a woman was involved was obviously a factor in the case being so high profile in the media and public eye.

    In more recent years, "stranger danger" killings of children including that of at least four young girls by Robert Black during the 1980s, and that of Sarah Payne in West Sussex in July 2000, may have led parents to become increasingly protective of their children - as well as prompting parents and teachers to make children more alert of the dangers of strangers. Black was a stranger who lured his victims from different parts of Britain while working as a lorry driver, while Sarah Payne's killer Roy Whiting was not known to the victim or to any of her family, who had confirmed this to the police when Sarah Payne was still missing and Whiting was first identified as a possible suspect.

    However, statistics by government and police bodies have shown that "stranger danger" killings of children are incredibly rare, and that the overwhelming cases of child abuse and murder were committed by someone who was known to the child. The Soham Murders in Cambridgeshire, where two 10-year-old girls were found dead two weeks after their disappearance in August 2002, are a notable example - the killer of the girls, Ian Huntley, was known to both of his victims, and his role as a local school caretaker perhaps portrayed him as a man with a position of trust, who would not appear to be a likely danger to children whether known to them or not.Subsequent child murders including those of Tia Sharp in South London and April Jones (whose body has never been found) in Mid Wales during 2012 were also proven to have been committed by men who were known to the victim - in the case of Tia Sharp, a family member.

    There have also been several cases of murder where the victim was an older child or teenager whose considerable amount of freedom compared to the average young child made it impossible for the police to determine whether the killer was definitely known to the victim. A notable example is Amanda Dowler, the Surrey teenager who disappeared in March 2002 and whose remains were found in Hampshire six months later. Levi Bellfield, already serving life imprisonment for two other murders, was found guilty of her murder nearly a decade later, and police said that she may have known Bellfield as he was the step-father of one of her friends at school. In 2005, 15-year-old Rochelle Holness was murdered and dismembered by her distant neighbour John McGrady on a high-rise council estate in South London, but as with the case of Amanda Dowler, police were unable to confirm whether Rochelle Holness knew her killer.

    Such is the rarity of "stranger danger" abductions and killings of children in the United Kingdom, that in May 2015 an online video portraying the dangers of strangers and potential abduction situations was in fact condemned by critics, due to these crimes being so rare. Indeed, the murder of Sarah Payne 15 years earlier may very well have been the most recent murder of a pre-teen child by a stranger in Britain.


    Stranger danger Wikipedia