Momo Challenge: The Viral Hoax

If you’ve never heard of the Momo Challenge, that’s great. Don’t feel like you’re missing out- you’re really not. Momo is not new- it popped up on the internet around 2016 and resurfaces every now and then. It’s causing a big stir again right now, so we thought we’d give you a head’s up on the Momo Challenge, so you don’t Google it and perpetuate clicks.

What is It, Really?

If you have heard of it, put aside what you think you know. Basically, the Momo Challenge is an old school chain letter.  The kind that you used to get in the mail- an anonymous letter that threatens bad luck if you don’t send ten copies of that letter to ten people. The difference is that it’s mainly all online, via Whatsapp, Facebook, or text.  With the Momo Challenge, a person is contacted and told to search for a certain phone number online and send a text or Whatsapp message. The player then enters into a conversation that sends “distressing images” and tries to persuade them to complete specific challenges that they prove with photos of themselves, such as waking up at certain times to self-harm, stabbing people, taking pills or even committing suicide.

Momo is also appearing in YouTube videos, apparently hidden in shows made for children. YouTube has been marking videos including Momo content as being “identified by the YouTube community as inappropriate or offensive to some audiences”. And that “viewer discretion is advised”.

Is it Dangerous?

In short: probably not. Here’s why, according to excerpts from an article written by Andy Robertson for Forbes.com.
“The image and the story of children harming themselves or their families is, of course, shocking. However, as ParentZone recently highlighted, the number of reported cases of children harming themselves because of the game is extremely low. Even those cases that are linked in the media, of teenagers killing themselves in Asia and South America, are not suggesting the game was the direct cause.

Robertson interviewed Andy Phippen, a  professor of social responsibility in IT at Plymouth University, who told him, “things like Momo become social media storms because folk are so keen to share. It’s a nasty looking image which looks scary, so, the gut feeling would be this would scare kids. But check the sources and the evidence trail soon runs dry. It’s viral content at the end of the day, propagating just adds fuel to the fire, and creates unfounded hysteria. Don’t believe everything you read online.”

Carmel Glassbrook, manager of Professionals Online Safety Helpline, told Andy Robertson, that they have received calls on the topic of Momo, from schools and local authorities and police. “The main problem”, she said, “was not the phenomenon itself but that professionals and parents were sharing Facebook posts about Momo without checking on its validity. It has become a viral topic, founded more on scaremongering headlines than well-researched facts.”
The real danger, as highlighted by Glassbrook, is that carers and parents are distracted from the real issues of teaching children how to safely thrive online while chasing viral shock-fads like this.”

How Do We Protect Our Kids?

We are parents, school administrators, caregivers. We are human and want to take care of our children. The absolute BEST course of action to take in any of these online challenges, hoaxes, and fads is to NOT immediately overreact. The Momo challenge is ironically perpetuated by many concerned parents and adults posting panicked messages on Facebook urging friends to strip their children of their media devices. Yes, the image of the Momo challenge and the video is disturbing and would probably scare many people, especially children. But, actually driving them to suicide? Let’s stop for a moment and think before we react.

(Sidenote: We take mental health concerns VERY seriously. These challenges can unfortunately be especially intriguing to individuals who have underlying mental health issues or suicidal thoughts and tendencies. Our focus here is the general population of tweens and teens, not those will mental health concerns.)

The best plan of action is to educate and to set up proper restrictions on our children’s devices. For example, on YouTube, if you have Restricted mode on for your child’s account the Momo content is not available to them and the creepy videos will not pop up.

As soon as a child is old enough to use a tablet, an iPhone, a computer, or whatever the device is- teach them HOW to properly navigate the world of social media. Tell them to never respond to unknown numbers or links, to change their passwords often and to never share them and to block any unknown numbers. They should know to never contact strangers online and to have their privacy settings up-to-date on all devices.

Beyond that, talk to them openly and honestly about what they are doing online. Keep up with who they are chatting with, what apps they are using, what videos they are watching and what their favorite social media apps are at the moment.

It is incredibly easy for tweens and teens to get caught up in the world of social media and their lives online.
But, we, the adults, should also take what we hear with a grain of salt and remember not to panic. Perhaps the Momo Challenge is just a reminder that online safety is an ongoing conversation we need to keep having with our kids.

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