When a child goes missing it is a common approach for law enforcement, charities, and the family and friends of that missing child to create a public appeal in the hope that a member of the public has some information on the child’s whereabouts. These appeals may be distributed in numerous locations such as newspapers and shop windows, but more commonly distributed through social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and, more recently, TikTok. Online publicity appeals allow the missing child appeal to be disseminated widely in a very short space of time, which is a vital resource for finding the child quickly as research (e.g., Newiss, 2006) shows that the longer a child remains missing, the more likely they are to experience some form of harm. However, despite their importance and frequent usage, there is limited research available that explores how effective these appeals really are in helping to locate a missing child.
Stages of Appeal Effectiveness
Although the ability to disseminate appeals widely through social media is important, Lampinen, Curry and Erickson (2016) argue that several underlying stages must be followed for that appeal to be deemed effective. First, the appeal must be disseminated widely for the public to know the child is missing in the first place, followed by the second stage whereby the public must actively attend to the appeal. Third, the public must then have the opportunity to encounter the missing child, followed by stage four, the ability to accurately attend to, and identify, the face of that child. Fifth, the now-identified missing child must trigger the public’s recollection of the appeal for that child to recognise that this child was reported as being missing. Finally, the public must then take action and be confident enough to report their sighting of the child to the police. Only when each of these stages are accurately completed can the appeal be identified as being effective. Failure to progress from one stage to the next will result in the non-successful identification of the missing child and thus, the appeal becomes ineffective.
Are these stages effective in practice?
When we consider the processes involved within each of these individual stages further, appeal effectiveness becomes even more difficult. Exploring the attention and encountering stages, research tells us that our memory is error-prone and that as the information presented to us increases, the ability to recall all of this information accurately at a later time declines. For example, Lampinen and Moore (2016) presented participants with either one or three fictional missing person appeals across a three-day event. They were then informed that there would be an opportunity to encounter the individual and were asked to report this individual to the researchers if they locate them. They found that participants who observed just one appeal had greater correct identification sightings than those who had observed three appeals. Therefore, the study demonstrates the difficulty in identifying unknown individuals and how presenting multiple appeals, which is a common occurrence with social media appeals, can decrease the appeal effectiveness.
For stage four, researchers (e.g., Davis & Valentine, 2009; Megreya & Burton, 2006, 2008) have consistently demonstrated how we are generally quite poor at being able to identify unfamiliar faces. Gier et al. (2017) demonstrate this well as they presented one of four video clips of an elderly woman to their participants which was followed by a facial recognition task. Forty photographs of elderly women were presented sequentially to the participants and for each image, they were asked whether this woman was the same woman in the video they had just observed. Only 6.7% of participant responses were correct in identifying the woman, highlighting the inability to accurately recognise unfamiliar individuals even when we have just observed them.
Likewise, stage five requires individuals to recall that a now-identified person was missing. This process relies on accurate prospective memory which is an event-based memory cue requiring a particular response in the future which research again shows can be quite poor. Sweeney and Lampinen (2012) for example, presented images of fictional missing children to participants and asked them to press the letter ‘H’ on their keyboard if they come across any of these children throughout the remainder of the study. Participants then completed a sorting task where they were presented with 50 images of children, some of which included the missing children presented at the start of the study and were asked to place them into two groups. The study found that, overall, the participant responses for identifying the missing child were poor.
Even when all of these previous stages are accurately completed, the public are still needing to complete the final hurdle of appeal effectiveness – taking action. Research in this area is very limited, although a recent study by Hunt et al. (2021) has demonstrated some of the key factors associated with reporting and not reporting a missing child to the police. Utilising a qualitative approach, the study identified how a lack of certainty in the perceived accuracy of a missing child due to a different appearance or lack of knowledge from the initial appeal, deters the public from reporting the child to the police. Similarly, fear of wasting police time and resources was also found to reduce the likelihood of reporting the child to the police with the belief that they may report inaccurate details or that the child encountered may not be the same child who was reported missing in the first place. As a result, failure to act and report a potentially missing child to the police contributes to making the appeal ineffective.
Research suggests that missing children appeals may not be effective due to inaccuracies with facial recognition, memory recollection, and failure to report a potentially missing child to the police. Some researchers have even argued to abolish search campaigns altogether because of this (Griffin et al., 2007; Griffin et al., 2021). Despite these findings, missing children appeals remain a vital resource in aiding the safe return of the child and research will continue to explore how to improve each of these key processes involved. Whilst there are large limitations to their usage, releasing a missing child appeal still provides the greatest possible chance that at least one person who sees the appeal could accurately identify and report the child to the police that leads to the quick and safe return of that missing child.
Writer: Dr. Daniel Hunt
Dr. Daniel Hunt is a Senior Lecturer in Forensic and Investigative Psychology at the University of Huddersfield. His research primarily focuses on missing person publicity appeals and offender narratives of crime. His work on missing person publicity appeals explores what factors are associated with improving their overall effectiveness within photograph-based and description-based appeals. Other research interests include eyewitness memory, geographic offender profiling, and jury decision-making.