I participated in something today that is, frankly, disturbing.
For a series called "Stranger Danger" which will run during fall ratings coming up next month, we at A-Channel in Ottawa asked parents to let us know if they wanted their children tested, to see if they knew how to respond to being approached by a stranger. The idea came from the disappearance of Cédrika Provencher in Québec last month.
Today, we tested two girls. I played the part of the stranger. I was equipped with a hidden camera and microphone. One of our ENG camera operators was using a camera hidden in the back of a van, while the reporter putting the series together used a mini-cam in the van, getting the mothers' reaction while each scenario unfolded.
In the first scenario, I was looking for Zoey, my lost dog, as ten-year-old Chelsea came walking down the street, on her way to school. I asked her if she had seen Zoey, and gave her a poster with Zoey's picture on it. Chelsea immediately started talking to me, calling for Zoey herself, telling me her name and where she lived. When I asked if she would come in my car to look for Zoey if I dropped her off at school, I could feel the wall go up between us. She kept walking towards school, and said if she saw my puppy, she would phone me.
In the second case, five-year-old Stephanie was brought to a park by her mom, who works part-time in a building on the edge of the park. After playing for a few minutes, Stephanie's mom told her she had to get something at the office, and she should sit on the bench and have some candies and water. After Mom walked away, I walked over to Stephanie, called her by name, and said I worked with her mom and she would like me to take her to her. With no hesitation, Stephanie started packing up her things and came with me. She wouldn't talk or hold my hand, but responded to all my questions with head gestures. When we reached the parking lot and the camera van, Mom opened the door and stepped out.
Each mom was shocked and upset, but kept repeating how glad she is to have participated in the exercise. It gives them a starting-off point to reinforce or expand on their warnings about stranger dangers.
Chelsea passed when it came to not getting into the car, although I could have easily dragged the little thing into the vehicle. Stephanie, as it turns out, did not talk to me, taking her mom's warnings literally.
Phase 2 happens in a couple weeks, when the kids will be tested again in different circumstances, and approached by a woman.
From my standpoint, it was an eye-opening, disturbing experience. It was too easy to engage the girls and get them to go along with what I was suggesting. I felt creepy but didn't realize how much the first case (Chelsea) rattled me until I tried to start the car. My hand was shaking so badly, I had to steady it with the other hand to put the key in the car's ignition.
I sincerely hope that when the series airs, it prompts families right across our viewing area to discuss stranger danger with their kids, in enough detail.