Recently, we became aware of the Momo Challenge. The story goes that Momo, a creepy and distorted looking being, contacts young children and prompts them via YouTube or the What’sApp Messenger platform to text an unknown number. Once engaged, they are given instructions to complete very strange tasks with the end result, the child hurting him/herself or someone else. This obviously has parents very worried.
When we first heard about Momo, it sounded reminiscent of a viral challenge that circulated last year…and the year before that…and another one the year before that. So, is Momo the next digital urban legend or is there some real evidence that there is a person behind the image inciting this year’s moral panic? What we’ve found is that there’s more hoax and hysteria rooted in Momo than truth.
Here’s what we know. By doing a very basic search, we found that the photo linked to Momo was created by a Japanese special effects artist for use as a prop. Once she was complete, her image was circulated all over the internet and her creep factor led to a lot of commentary on a variety of social media platforms. So far, we cannot find any evidence that any children who have harmed themselves did so because of the Momo Challenge. Short of screen shots of her image, a story of a young girl in Buenos Aires, 2 teens in Columbia and India who completed suicide (none of these events have any causal link or evidence linking the suicides to Momo), and a handful of parents alerting other parents, there is no real data to suggest Momo is anything more than 2019’s version of Slender Man or our childhood’s Bloody Mary.
But is there cause for concern? Yes.
What’sApp and YouTube have over a billion users worldwide. A BILLION. That many users provide ample opportunities for children to communicate with people and groups they’ve never met. If parents don’t have a good handle on the platforms of social media in which their children are engaging, they’re not going to be fully aware of the dangers that do exist. There are definitely predators out there who are looking for personal information, to exploit children, and to bully others. Some predators will take Momo, locking onto this existing mechanism, to target a vulnerable population. Unfortunately, the imitators or copycats sort of count on sensational reporting and knee-jerk, panic-induced reactions to these kinds of viral stories. People are also easily duped today and there doesn’t have to be any truth within the folklore. We’ll still believe it, and we may even still act on it. With social media as one of the largest platforms for disseminating “news” today, almost anything can go viral, and we can certainly count on that when the issue incites fear within. So, what can parents do about Momo and whatever else comes after Momo?
Because there are some real dangers out there in the cyberworld, parents MUST become digitally and media literate. There’s no possible way we can know everything there is to know about all the apps, social media platforms, games out there, but you can get familiar with what your children are using. If something questionable surfaces, do a quick search. Creating a dialogue about safe use of the internet will also be crucial. The reality is that our world is a digital one, so banning or blocking the use of it, isn’t realistic. Putting limits and protections in place, teaching responsible internet use, and having direct and frank conversations will help shape children’s choices, but also arm them with the information they need to navigate potentially risky platforms.
It’s also ok to pay attention to developmentally appropriate boundaries. If your child is not mature enough to manage social media and internet use, helping them develop and practice the skills in a more regimented format seems more than logical. There’s something about allowing any child under 10 years old free reign of a platform like YouTube (including YouTube Kids), without any conversations, education, or some level of supervision that causes some concern. If you have a child or teen who is already vulnerable, paying closer attention to what sort of content they’re looking at as well as their behavior will be important. And if you can find the balance of allowing them their privacy and autonomy while staying informed, even better!
The likelihood Momo is linked to anything other than these scary stories is so far low, but it can allow at risk and vulnerable youth to become influenced through suggestion. There is rarely a single cause behind an individual completing suicide, and those who do complete suicide (nearly 90%) have underlying mental health and emotional challenges already; meaning if vulnerable individuals engage in these viral challenges, its not because of the challenges themselves. Maintaining and open line of communication will be critical.