This week, Channel 5 aired a short documentary called Little Girl Lost. The documentary encompassed a kind of social experiment, testing how many people would stop to help two unaccompanied young girls, aged seven and five, standing outside of Victoria rail station in London. Of the 616 people to have walked by in an hour, only one stopped to help.
The producers of the show have said the documentary shows how we have become a nation of people who ‘walk on by’. The reasons provided by the participants for failing to help varied from fear of being accused of child abduction to refusing to believe the children had genuinely been left alone. However, what all these responses had in common were two things: an abdication of responsibility on the part of these adults and a fear of other people’s misplaced reactions.
Although the show highlighted the concerns adults have in relation to their interaction with children, it did not explain their origins – cue much speculation and analysis from columnists and commentators. Nonetheless, whatever the explanation – be it child-abuse hysteria, ‘stranger danger’ paranoia, or the corrosion of social bonds by state intervention – the documentary, and the coverage it has generated, did reveal one thing clearly: there is a serious problem with the extent to which adults feel able to interact with, and help, children.
What we need now is a proper discussion as to why so many people in Britain choose to ‘walk on by’.
Guy Pierce is a writer and researcher based in London.