A potentially life-saving hand signal is going on viral on TikTok.
The signal made headlines earlier this month after a 16-year-old girl in Kentucky used it to call for help. The teen, who had been reported missing by her parents earlier that week, was seen making the hand gesture out of the window of a car. A passing driver recognized the signal from TikTok and called 911, which led to the arrest of a man who had been driving the teen across multiple states.
Her story has raised wider awareness about the “Signal for Help,” which is made by facing your palm outward, folding your thumb across your palm, and then closing your fingers over your thumb.
The signal was introduced by the Canadian Women’s Foundation in April 2020 as a response to increasing rates of domestic violence during the COVID-19 lockdown.
“We were very concerned because with the pandemic, we also knew that folks were going to be trapped at home, which meant that they would often be trapped at home with their abusers,” Suzanne Duncan, vice president of philanthropy for the Canadian Women’s Foundation, told TODAY.
“Abusers often monitor cell phones, monitor your internet use, monitor your laptop. So we wanted to make sure that we could create something that would be able to be used without a digital trace.”
The signal soon began gathering steam on TikTok.
Duncan said her organization has seen the signal used in “lots of different cases” around the world.
She pointed to the case of Om Sayf, a Turkey-based YouTuber with more than 6.7 million followers.
In January, Sayf flashed the signal for help in a video as she announced she was quitting YouTube. Her concerned fans alerted the authorities, who later confirmed that she was safe, Duncan said.
What to do — and what not to do — if you see the signal
In the recent case of the girl in Kentucky, the passing motorist did the right thing by calling the authorities, Duncan said. However, the signal is not always a request to immediately call the police.
In fact, in cases of domestic violence, “calling the authorities ... can actually increase the risk of violence for the person who is in that situation,” she said.
If an adult gives you the signal, try to check in with them safely. The Canadian Women’s Foundation website offers several tips on how to safely reach out to someone, including calling them and asking them “yes” or “no” questions such as “Would you like me to call 911?”
Or, reach out via an alternative mode of communication such as texting or emailing and ask general questions like “How are you doing?” in case their devices are being monitored.
“What's most important is people know that they're heard, they're seen, they're believed, and that somebody is supporting them,” Duncan said.
He said the Kentucky case was “unusual” and was the first time he had heard of a child using a hand signal in that manner. Often, children communicate their distress in subtler ways, especially because most child abuse is committed someone the child already knows, he said. That was the case of the girl in Kentucky, who reportedly knew the man driving her and initially went with him willingly before getting scared, police told the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Before a situation escalates to the point where an emergency hand signal is needed, it’s important for adults to create a safe, non-judgmental environment where kids’ concerns are heard — so if something unsafe is going on, children will feel comfortable opening up.
For example, a child may tell an adult that their uncle is “mean.” The adult might be tempted to say something like, “No, he’s not, he’s super nice!”
“So the child feels like, ‘Well, I'm trying to say something to you and you're shutting me down, so I'm not going to approach you again,’” Newlin said. “Whereas ... another approach would be to say, ‘Well, why do you say he’s mean?’ and exploring that and giving children that opportunity.”
The hand signal is “one tool,” Newlin said. “I think the broader discussion is, how do we make sure that we promote an environment where children … have people who are willing to listen to hear what they're communicating?”
He added that while the hand signal was certainly effective in the Kentucky case, children should not be expected to protect themselves in this way.
“Ultimately, it's our belief that adults are responsible for the protection of children,” he said, “not children themselves.”