There was a warning issued to parents by authorities across continents – Europe, North America, Australia – of the dangerous “Game of 72”. As part of a frightening trend, teenagers were daring each other over Facebook to leave home and go missing for three days. They were not to contact any relatives or loved ones. They had to just wait out the time and then come home as if nothing happened.
In 2015, many major news outlets (in the UK, The Daily Mail, the Mirror, the Express; Canada’s CBC News; The Courier Mail and The New Daily in Australia; US publications like Yahoo Parenting and SF Gate; and many more). They say the trend started with a girl in France and quickly spread to Britain and Canada. Would it come to your home town? Has it already? The teens got a rush from panicking their parents, although, commentators warned, going missing in such a way could have grave ramifications well beyond worrying others. Without responsible adults around to protect them, the teens could get hurt.
Well before “fake news” became Macquarie Dictionary’s 2016 Word of the Year, fake news was definitely something readers had to watch out for. While I apply the term retrospectively, the “Game of 72” was a classic fake news story. As Snopes details, none of the reports were backed up by any evidence at all. While the “trend” was very much depicted as a set of social media-based interactions, scant references could be found of the Game of 72 on a range of social media platforms unless they were links to articles about it. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in the UK – which runs a hotline for distressed young people – had received no reports about it. Moreover, none the articles actually provide accounts from anyone involved with the game, whether they be worried parents or participants themselves.
There was a 13-year-old girl who went missing in France for three days, but as the BBC reports, it probably wasn’t because of a dare. French authorities believe that she went missing in order to meet up with somebody. In order to protect that person’s identity, she said that she had disappeared as a game.
There is no additional information about who the girl met up with, but this allegation leads me to the question: if the idea that a young and vulnerable person would go missing for sport is disturbing, surely the idea that they might go missing to meet up with someone who might get into trouble if their identity were revealed is far more disturbing? In the former scenario, you have a kid behaving irresponsibly and problematically. In the latter scenario, you have a kid who is potentially victim to predatory behaviour, which is much, much worse. And yet, it’s not this latter – more likely – scenario that has the global media wringing its hands.
The spread of lies and rumours in the media is always a problem. The stories that we are told to be “fact” have a way of shaping the way we understand contemporary life and inaccuracies help no one. In media about the Game of 72, these inaccuracies are directly harmful in a number of ways.
It’s a commonly held assumption that when young people go missing they do it for spurious reasons. They want to go to a party when they’re grounded. Their parents won’t let them dye their hair. They want adventure and to have fun. They want to rebel and test limits. But there may also be far more complex reasons behind the act of running away. I’ve noted previously that disappearances can result from very serious problems such as relationship conflicts, abuse, and mental illness.
Being a teenager doesn’t protect you from going through these adversities. In some ways, you’re more vulnerable. It’s harder to remove yourself from toxic relationships, you have less power, people are less inclined to listen to your side of the story without assuming you’re exaggerating or somehow contributing to the problem. Charitable organisation, Rethink Mental Illness say that the mid-teen years seem to be the most common point for the onset of severe mental illness. Yet, in the UK, according to research from the Personal Social Services Research Unit at the London School of Economics, 55% of young people aged between 16 and 25 with a mental health issue were not receiving any professional support. Moreover, young adulthood is a time where you explore your identity, and frighteningly, many families do not accept certain identities – running away and homelessness, for example, are particularly prevalent encounters for young people who identify as LGBTI.
It’s likewise damaging to assume that a child has left on their own volition. They may well have, and indeed, most do, but it is possible that young people are missing as a result of being a victim of crime, or because they’ve been nefariously – but perhaps less obviously – manipulated into doing so. Child sexual exploitation (CSE) and running away are highly correlated experiences, as the work of charities such as Barnardo’s shows. CSE is a very complex problem and takes on many possible forms. Clearly crimes such as abduction and sexual assault fall under the category, but there are also more insidious forms of exploitation. Barnardo’s describes what can happen:
At first, a young person may like, respect, or even think they are falling in love with the person exploiting them. This is because they are ‘groomed’ over time. This process involves making them feel ‘special’, so they become attached. But later, the behaviour of the abuser starts to change, often slowly. By this point, the young person is likely to feel trapped, isolated and scared, and they may find it difficult to acknowledge that they are no longer comfortable in the relationship.
People who commit child sexual exploitation can be very manipulative. They might buy presents or give emotional attention that makes a young person feel on top of the world, or as if they are falling in love. They may single out their victims and target them face-to-face, or approach them online.
Sometimes the abuser will strengthen their control over the young person by driving them away from those who would usually look after them, whether that’s family, friends or carers.
There’s a big spectrum of ways in which young people can be lured out of home – and this should worry adults more than the Game of 72. It is very hard to estimate the prevalence of CSE, but in the UK Barnado’s has worked with over 3000 affected or at-risk in the year 2014-15 alone, and it’s likely they’re only reaching a small proportion of those affected.
Experts I’ve spoken to on this issue hesitantly concede that it is possible that some teenagers may run away for silly reasons (such as a game, I suppose), but to assume that this is their reason does them a major disservice because it ignores the potential problems that could be going on in their life, as well as the opportunity to help the young person develop and flourish. This is what Mette Drivsholm, a project officer for Missing Children Europe, whose work focuses on runaway young people, told me:
We feel it’s really important to say, ‘Why is this child running away? And is there something we can do about it?’ And so the second part of this project is also to look at how to improve multi-agency cooperation and how we can improve the situation the child finds themself in and runs away from. Or, if a case of a child allegedly running away to for amusement or for fun, then discuss boundaries with that child. [You tell them], ‘You’re a living here, you’re part of this society. And there are certain rules.’ This is part of the education of the child… [They have] to learn to respect boundaries. It’s part of growing up and becoming a fully-fledged citizen who really has rights and responsibilities.
Petulance and play are not necessarily the cause of teen disappearance, although the willingness of people to believe the hoax that is the Game of 72 suggests that many hold this attitude about young people. Rather, mitigating disappearance is about cultivating safe environments; helping teens build boundaries that may protect them from dangerous relationships and situations; giving teens opportunities to find help and express their grievances; and imparting to them a sense that their actions matter, that their wellbeing and whereabouts are of consequence to those who care about them.