Are Facebook Cartoon Pics Really Fighting Child Abuse?

If you're on Facebook — and a ridiculous number of people are — then you've probably seen friends of yours changing their profile pictures to cartoons over the past week or two. Maybe you've done it yourself, in response to a forwarded e-campaign to help end child abuse.

The movement apparently began with a Facebook group page titled "Campaign to End Violence Against Children -- Childhood Cartoon Faces," which asked supporters to change their profile pictures to cartoons. "Until Monday (Dec. 6), there should be no human faces on Facebook but an invasion of memories. This is for eliminating violence against children."

People often participate in these campaigns because it is an effortless and cost-free way to show support for a cause. The stated goal is to raise awareness of child abuse, though there's no evidence that that anyone who was unaware of child abuse before the movement is now better informed about the problem because one or more of their Facebook friends was represented by a cartoon character.

This is of course not the first campaign in which Facebook users were asked to show their support for a good cause. In June of last year, Facebook and Twitter users were asked to color their picture or avatar green in symbolic support of anti-government protesters in Iran. Hundreds of thousands of people did so, though the effort petered out and the campaign provided little or no benefit to the protesters.

Another campaign recently asked female users to make suggestive Facebook updates that begin with, "I like it..." and end with a location (on the floor, on the kitchen table, in the back seat, etc.). The location indicated where women liked to leave their purses or handbags (instead of their preferred locations for sex), and was supposed to somehow raise awareness of breast cancer.

The Facebook cartoon campaign took a sinister turn when a rumor spread (ironically via Facebook) that a group of pedophiles was actually behind the movement, and the avatars were being used to lure children into sexual abuse. One concerned woman warned others on the group's page: "ATTENTION: the group asking everyone to change their profile picture to a cartoon character is actually a group of pedophiles. Their [sic] doing it bacause [sic] kids will accept their friend request faster if they see a cartoon picture. It has nothing to do with any child charities. IT’S ON TONIGHTS NEWS. Copy & paste this on your status - Let everyone know. Change your pic back to what it was ASAP."

There is of course no evidence or truth behind the story; the pedophile rumors are merely a new incarnation of the "stranger danger" alarmist chain e-mail warnings that have circulated for years.

Though the campaign won’t prevent child abuse directly, it may have some small indirect effect. Some child advocacy groups have reported increased traffic to their Web sites, and one organization, The Child Abuse Prevention Association, claims to have received about $1,200 in small donations recently. While all donations are appreciated, clearly very few of the over 150,000 people who participated in the Facebook cartoon event (either by changing their profile image or by endorsing the campaign) donated any money. If the campaign had asked Facebook users to donate one dollar (instead of tweaking a profile picture), child advocacy organizations could have likely raised at least a quarter of a million dollars.

The mundane truth is that millions of Facebook users changing their photos will have no effect on children (though the publicity surrounding the event may bring in a few extra dollars). It won't help prevent child abuse, but nor will it increase the risk of child abuse. It's just another Web-based activist fad movement to keep people occupied until the next one comes along.

Benjamin Radford is managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and wrote about activist media scares in his book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us. His Web site is www.RadfordBooks.com.