Grainy photographs of missing children smile from half-gallon milk cartons on the breakfast table. On grocery bags, television screens, billboards and posters, there are similar reminders that, for children, today's world is a dangerous place where strangers cannot be trusted.
Organizers of the missing children campaign say the efforts have led to recovery of hundreds of youngsters. But other experts -- including counselors and pediatricians -- are beginning to ask whether the campaign has gone too far, creating an unhealthy and unwarranted fear among children that they, too, will disappear.
A Silver Spring elementary school counselor said she spent much of two days last week calming the fears of children worried about strangers following them home at the end of the day. "A lot of children are starting to panic," she said. "They're scared, and I feel like they're not having fun anymore."
Julie Estes, a volunteer on a Washington telephone hot line, said, "They see it on the bags, on the milk cartons. Pictures of kids who look like them . . . . It's a scary idea."
Children are bombarded by more than photographs. They stand in line at mass fingerprinting sessions in shopping malls and watch cartoon characters on TV reminding them to be wary of strange adults. At a Prince George's County elementary school, hand-drawn posters hang in the hallways, advising in big, block letters: "Run and scream if you are followed by a stranger!!! Never open the door to strangers!!!"
While the campaign reaches children and adults, psychologists say children are much less able to deal with it rationally and do not understand the rarity of abductions. Also, they need adults to "interpret" the information for them, according to Margaret Spencer, associate professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta.
"The publicity is fine, but the problem . . . is that kids will be left to interpret it themselves," said Spencer, who studied the impact on children of the Atlanta child murders. She said parents should reassure children that adults are there to protect them.
There is neither a consensus nor much research concerning the impact of the missing children campaign on the psyches of youngsters. Many people say the publicity has made children more aware of dangers and more able to deal with them.
But there are psychologists, social service workers and other child advocates, including celebrated pediatricians T. Berry Brazelton and Benjamin Spock, who argue that the onslaught of photos and publicity has evolved into a sort of hysteria, producing a new anxiety in young children.
"I'm very worried about it. We're putting a lot of responsibility on kids to worry about something adults should be worried about," said Brazelton. "I don't think it's really appropriate to make them afraid of everybody."
Those who argue that children are being needlessly frightened say there is a general misunderstanding about the numbers of children who are abducted by strangers. Only a fraction of the often-reported number of missing children -- 1.5 million annually -- are kidnaped by strangers. Last year, the FBI investigated 68 such cases.
Of the 1.5 million children, the vast majority -- 1 million, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children -- are runaways. Most of the remainder are taken by estranged parents in custody battles.
Some even question the 1.5 million estimate.
"Where are some of these figures coming from?" asked Manuel Marquez, special agent in the FBI press office. "When they say 'missing children' you get the connotation of some little kid. A runaway is a runaway."
Barbara Chapman, an official at the National Center, an information clearinghouse established last year by Congress, said her organization gives equal attention to missing children whether they are runaways, abducted by parents or taken by strangers.
And she defends the intense publicity: "One missing child merits the kind of attention that the center is seeking to give it."
Differentiating between missing children and runaways may seem "esoteric," said Bill Treanor, executive director of the American Youth Work Center, a Washington-based social service organization. "But it's important. You just get an environment of fear. Normal, rational people become so misinformed as to the probabilities of this heinous crime happening to their children."
There is another misperception, many say, that fingerprinting or videotaping will somehow protect children from abduction. These devices are used to identify children after they are missing.
Fingerprinting and identification cards are now being offered by a number of groups in the Washington area, including parent-teacher organizations, local and state police departments and corporate sponsors who visit schools and set up sessions in grocery stores and shopping centers.
There is a range of programs that alert youngsters to related dangers, including lessons for children who stay home alone and school sessions that teach how to fend off potential sexual abusers.
The cumulative effect of the publicity shows up almost every day, some school counselors say.
A Prince George's County elementary school counselor said a fifth grade girl came to her after recurring nightmares in which she was being kidnaped by a stranger. Two sixth grade girls came to her office more than once to say they were frightened because a schoolmate's father waves at them each morning.
"There's a lot of fear," said Lois Martin, a counselor at Templeton Elementary. "They're suspicious of cars that move slowly or anybody walking behind them." The missing children publicity, she said, "is another unknown we're throwing into the lives of these kids."
Another counselor said that when she asked a class of sixth graders to talk about stress in their lives, they mentioned divorce, failure in school and fear of being abducted.
A 9-year-old girl from Upper Marlboro became hysterical early last school year when it was time for her to get off the school bus and walk down the rural lane to her home. She was convinced strangers would jump out of the bushes, said a mental health worker who was called to help calm her.
School officials say such anxiety is not widespread. Jane Marinich, a counselor at Patrick Henry Elementary in Alexandria, said there were no signs of it when the students there had their fingerprints and photographs taken by the police department last week.
"They thought it was fun," she said. "I hear children talk more about it . . . but it's fear in a good sense. It makes them more cautious. I don't feel it's an unhealthy fear."
The atmosphere at a fingerprinting and photography session at a Washington day care center last week was anything but threatening. The children were entranced by the fingerprinting process and asked impatiently when they would get their "driver licenses."
Norma Feshbach, a UCLA professor of psychology and education who has studied the mental health of children, said the photographs "must be very frightening to children," but she concluded that the publicity, by making children more aware of the dangers, "is unfortunate, but it seems to be necessary."
Yet opponents of the intense publicity counter that the energy and financial resources driving the campaign are misdirected.
"All the media are focusing on means of recognizing kids after the fact, but there's not a preventive component," said Emory professor Spencer. She argued that money and energy should be directed instead toward social service programs that she believes could make society generally safer for children.
Spock, who has said in speeches that displaying photos on milk cartons and elsewhere makes youngsters aware of crime at too early an age, also argues that money spent on fingerprinting would be better spent on improving child care.