Three screenshots of an Instagram feed with the Amber Alert notification. The screenshots feature real-life missing child Myra Lewis.

Amber Alert, the nationwide alert service for missing children, will now put breaking emergency information directly into your Instagram scroll — a collaboration between the social media app and several children’s safety organizations in honor of Global Missing Children’s Day.

The alert, which is an acronym for “America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response,” was first instituted by Texas law enforcement in 1996 after the abduction (and later death) of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman. The alert system expanded nationwide in 2002. Since then, the service has collaborated with sites like Facebook, now under Meta, to transition the alerts onto social media — modern day’s main source of information gathering and networking.

“In the old days, we put pictures of children on milk cartons. Then there were flyers, nailed to telephone poles. And then there were mailers sent out — there’d be a coupon and on the other side there’d be a picture of a missing child,” Emily Vacher, director of trust and safety at Meta, explained. “We’ve evolved as technology has evolved.”

As of May 25, Instagram users will now be included in the localized alerts, which are overseen by the nonprofit National Center for Missing and Exploited Children; after law enforcement agencies issue the first Amber alerts, the center is designated with distributing them further. On the app, Amber Alert notifications will appear directly in users’ feeds, and will include identifying information like the child’s photo, their physical description, the location of the abduction, and any other details made available to the public. Alongside the alert and photo are two buttons: One will send users to the center’s website to view additional information on the case; the second connects individuals directly with the agency investigating the abduction. Users can also reshare the alerts with their own followers.

“Meta’s partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is so critically important,” Vacher told Mashable. “They are the ones that are charged with issuing the alerts by the Department of Justice, so we can’t do anything without them. And our platform, the reach that we have, helps amplify their message when a child goes missing.” Prior to Meta, Vacher worked for the FBI’s Child Abduction Rapid Deployment team, and is also on the board of directors for the center.

It’s about community coming together at the time of greatest need.

Michelle DeLaune, the new CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said the most significant part of this collaboration is the ability for Amber alerts to utilize the image-focused nature of the app itself. “Meta has a remarkable reach to be able to bring images of missing children, images related to an abduction, to the individuals in a region where the child may have been taken,” she told Mashable. “What we know is that images are the number one critical tool for bringing kids home. By being able to distribute these pictures to individuals who are holding their phones, who are out there at the bank, sitting in traffic, at work, or at a store, they now have a piece of information that may lead to the recovery of a child.”

A screenshot of an Amber Alert in an Instagram feed.
Credit: Meta / Instagram / NCMEC

Vacher added that the expansion of Meta’s work with Amber Alerts came after discussion with law enforcement and child abduction experts to ensure the app’s update would have a positive effect on critical missing child cases, limiting the potential of sharing incorrect, and thus harmful, information. In addition to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, Meta consulted many other global organizations in the field, like the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children, the the United Kingdom’s National Crime Agency, Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office, and the Australian Federal Police.

This care is reflected even in the promotional images for Instagram’s update, which uses a photo of missing child Myra Lewis to demonstrate how alerts will be displayed. Lewis was abducted near Camden, Mississippi, in 2014 and hasn’t yet been found. The latest image is an age-progressed depiction of Lewis at age 10.

DeLaune and the rest of the Meta team hope the new feature can clear up misinformation about how Amber alerts actually work. “These alerts are rare and specific to the search area. If you get one, it means there is an active search for a missing child nearby. In order to know who to show these alerts to, we use a variety of signals, including the city you list on your profile, your IP address, and location services (if you have it turned on),” Instagram wrote in the announcement’s press release.

A screenshot of the emergency call button below an Instagram Amber Alert notification.
Credit: Meta / Instagram / NCMEC

This is crucial information to know, DeLaune explains, since Amber Alerts are much more rare than many people think. “They’re used only in cases where there is suspected foul play, a life or death situation, and a case where they have concrete, specific information that if provided to the public may aid in the recovery of that child,” she explained. Many are already familiar with these alerts through the wireless alert system sent to personal phones. “That means that you are in a targeted area where law enforcement believes that abduction occurred, they have information, and they’re asking the citizens in that area to be looking around,” she said.

So if you’re scrolling and get an in-app alert, Vacher and DeLaune hope you feel compelled to pay attention. “These occur very rarely,” Vacher said. “When you see one of these on Facebook or Instagram, it means you’re potentially in the search area for the missing child. It’s about community coming together at the time of greatest need.”

Amber Alerts begin rolling out to Instagram today, and will become fully available in 25 countries over the next couple of weeks. For now, those will include Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Ecuador, Greece, Guatemala, Ireland, Jamaica, Korea, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Malta, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Romania, South Africa, Taiwan, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States.

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