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by Jan Harold Brunvand
July 27, 2001
The proliferation of the Internet also brings with it more use, and misuse. E-mail forwardables about sick, missing or dying children are sometimes honorable, often outdated, and occasionally completely false or misinformed.
Wait, you may be saying, this is a misuse of the Internet? But our children are our future! We must protect them! We have to spread the word when any child is in peril! ... You have a good point, but the automatic trust and concern inspired by an e-mail alert about a child in peril can overpower healthy skepticism. A common rebuttal is it can't do any harm and might do some good.
Wrong. Forwarding every child-in-peril message without question causes trouble, plenty of it. Police departments, charities and even parents of sick children are on the record complaining that they received too, too many inquiries long after the crisis has passed. Philanthropic groups devote time and resources on DISCLAIMING hoaxes, instead of the good work they set out to do. (Take a look at the few disclaimers I link to from this page....) Once a missing child e-mail alert is out, there's no way to get it back, or cancel it. (Well, there IS a way, if it is written with some simple guidelines. But I've never seen one with an "expiration date.") There is no sure-fire way to send an "all is fine" message to everyone who received the original alert. In the case of the Kelsey Brooke Jones, pleas for help are still widely forwarded more than two years after she was found in a neighbor's house; and she was only "missing" (actually, just misplaced) for a few hours!
Easily as annoying are "prayer requests." No one (on earth) has the power of divine intervention, a necessary tool for stopping e-mail prayer requests. Kids pass away, or recover, and the prayer requests keep circulating, wasting a valuable resource. Worse, the families of the child in question are forever inundated with communication; they have to close e-mail accounts, move away. The self-perpetuation e-mail forwardable becomes their new affliction, and there's no cure....
Below is a list of some of the more widespread child alerts. This list is not intended to be exhaustive or all-inclusive. If you find one that isn't listed here, consider the similarities before forwarding the latest incarnation.
These hoaxes probably started in 1997 with the now-classic Jessica Mydek hoax. This ancient hoax purported that the American Cancer Society would donate 3¢ to cancer research for every message that was forwarded. Oft-imitated, never true. There never was a Jessica Mydek, and the American Cancer Society does not make donations based on e-mail traffic.
For dedicated readers of this column, you'll recognize this as a mutation of the earlier "Microsoft Giveaway hoax" (in which you get rewarded for sending an e-mail to everyone you know), mated to a tearful entreaty on behalf of a sick little girl. Several of these hoaxes were accompanied by a syrupy poem called "Slow Dance."
Here are just a few of the known variants, all hoaxes:
The Jessica Mydek hoax rivals the "Good Times" hoax for sheer number of imitations. But none of the imitations makes the core elements any more true. You CANNOT help raise charity money by forwarding an e-mail message. But You CAN raise the ire of your well-meaning friends by sending them a hoax. Think it over.
This is a variation of the Jessica Mydek hoax (see above). The idea is simple: for each copy of the offending e-mail that is forwarded, some benefactor will donate some sum of money towards the dying child's treatment. As mentioned, charities do not tie their expenditures to the one-armed bandit of random Internet users' actions. It's like rolling dice at the craps table for a child's college fund.
There's a much darker element to messages like this, too. It purports that some benefactor has the money to help out, but won't donate the money unless an anonymous (and unpredictable) Internet populace performs like trained seals in a circus. "Not enough e-mails forwarded? Sorry, kid, no heart transplant this week. Check with us next Monday...." It's mean-spirited and I curse anyone who really makes donations like this, holding a financial piñata over the head of a sick child.
So the message tells us, little Anthony Parkin died of leukemia, and his dying wish was that you'd forward his e-mail so he'd "live on" in ever-transmitting Internet message-land. Aww, what a poetic notion. Unfortunately,... little Anthony was fictitious. This is another hoax. No points awarded for poetic hoaxes on this web site!
It's hard not to yield to the tear-jerking melodrama of a child lying still in a hospital bed, without hope or recourse, except to plead for the kindness of strangers. The Internet, oh it's got a lot of naive strangers, many of them willing to comply. The sad truth is that only a few of these prayer requests are genuine, several are outdated and no longer need to be forwarded, and a couple of these never originated with the child's family involved.
I suspect that the idea of a plea for a sick child began in 1989 when an English boy with a terminal brain tumor, Craig Shergold, wanted to get into the Guinness Book of World Records with the most greeting cards received. By 1990, his wish came true, with 16 million cards, and his place in the Guinness book was assured. In 1991, his tumor was removed, he returned to good health, and I'm informed that this "little boy" is now a college student (see photo). Happy ending? Only partly. The cards to Craig keep rolling in to his family's old residential address, despite pleas to stop sending cards from all concerned. Variations on his request have resulted in a deluge of undesired business cards, and compliments cards, to addresses having nothing to do with Craig. A hoax variant inundated the offices of the Children's Wish Foundation International in Atlanta to such a degree that they had to move to a new address; the Post Office holds the errant mail, then turns it over to a recycling dump. Due to the flood of unwanted cards and inquiries, the Guinness Book of World Records eventually retired the listing.
Craig's story is a bizarre example of the hidden power of the global community running amok. It is now the stuff of late 20th century folklore that a little boy's modest wish became an avalanche of misspent sympathy,... thanks to the Internet.
Below are some of the prayer requests I'm familiar with, and their status:
That said, some of the prayer requests we've seen have a kernel of authenticity. But it's impossible to "recall" or "cancel" a request that is distributed by e-mail with a tagline like, "please take a moment to pray for this child, and send this to everyone in your address book." It's just impossible to notify everyone on the Internet that the prayers are no longer needed. Regardless of the sincere, caring intent of these prayer requests, they are chain e-mail which continue to cause distress and misunderstanding long after the crisis has passed. Skepticism of these messages is growing; see also, the tale of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf."
Missing child alerts are the newest variation on homespun, emergency alerts. A child goes missing, and a concerned adult relies on the power of word of mouth to retrieve the lost child. I can't argue with the well-intentioned initiative behind these messages, but Internet chain e-mail isn't the way to find lost children. Often, they're amateurishly written, missing crucial details (sometimes police phone numbers don't include an area code!), and have insufficient directions for following up on the alert. Alas, when the child is found, the story ending in either relief or tragedy, the alerts take on a life of their own as Internet do-gooders continue to forward the errant message, oblivious to up-to-date information.
The net result is that countless inquiries to the families and local police forces continue to pour in long after help is needed. In extreme cases, the inquiries can cause pain to bereaved, or disrupt private family life that would otherwise return to normal; quite often, come-lately inquiries flooding into police stations can interfere with the normal duties of investigators.
If you receive an e-mail alert about a child, you can check for its validity at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, or call them at 1-800-THE-LOST. You can also search on the FBI site.
Some of the well-known missing child alerts include: