A new European report co-authored by an Abertay University academic calls for better protection of former missing children and their families from the negative impact of publicity appeals.
As Abertay prepares to host the prestigious 3rd International Conference on Missing Children and Adults in Dundee this summer, the report from the University’s Dr Penny Woolnough has revealed serious concerns over a child’s privacy and their right to be forgotten.
In the EU alone, at least 250,000 children are reported missing each year with publicity appeals often launched through websites, social media, TV, radio interviews and national child alerts.
The report ‘Once missing – never forgotten?’, launched at an event in Brussels on April 6, collected data from over 100 professionals from 19 missing children hotlines across Europe.
Produced by Missing Children Europe and the Centre for the Study of Missing Persons at the University of Portsmouth, it found that the internet and social media were becoming a primary source of information-gathering and sharing in missing children cases.
The report demonstrated that publicity appeals can make the missing child feel like someone cares, encouraging them to reach out and return to safety.
However, a former missing child can find it difficult move on with no control over their ‘digital footprint’ and the media can keep the story alive years after the fact.
In some cases abducted children have experienced bullying when they return to school.
Former police expert, Dr Woolnough of Abertay’s Division of Psychology, said the report would be discussed at the international conference on June 14-16, when more than 150 global delegates are expected in Dundee.
She added: “The internet and social media are primary sources of information-gathering and sharing in missing children cases.
“However, until now no research has explored the impact this has on the individual days, weeks, months or even years after the missing episode.
“Critically, the research has highlighted that while publicity can be a critical and positive aspect of locating a missing child, it can also have very negative implications ranging from personal embarrassment in the short term to concerns over a persistent negative public image, affecting things like job applications, in the longer term.
“Much more research is needed and important discussions over a child’s privacy and their right to be forgotten need to be held to ensure appropriate support and protective mechanisms can be put in place.”
Study co-author Dr Karen Shalev-Greene, Director of the Centre for the Study of Missing Persons, said the findings highlighted a number of important issues.
She added: “First, a public appeal for a missing child is always launched without the child’s consent.
“Yet, once found, the child must live with the consequences of their image being in the public domain.
“Second, once the images are in the public domain, the child does not seem to have the legal right to control the use of those images.
“This denies children the right to be forgotten and potentially further traumatises them.
“Third, once a name and image of a child are made public, it is a real challenge to remove pictures and articles that were published online.”
Study co-author Delphine Moralis, Secretary-General of Missing Children Europe said better strategies must be developed to prevent negative consequences.
“In order to further inform and improve the decision-making process for launching appeals, further evidence is needed on the effectiveness and impact of appeals,” she said.
The research was partially funded by the European Commission (Rights Equality and Citizenship Programme 2014-2020).
For more information on the 3rd International Conference on Missing Children and Adults visit https://www.abertay.ac.uk/research/society/conference-missing-children-and-adults/