SAN DIEGO — There are plenty of reasons for parents to be leery about what their kids can find on social media.
TikTok, a popular music video app, was just fined millions for collecting data on kids under 13. YouTube has been trying to pull down suicide videos aimed at teens while dealing with advertiser backlash after allegations that pedophiles were using the platform to trade information and draw attention to clips of young girls.
But the Momo Challenge, the experts will tell you, is probably not something to worry about.
The challenge is the latest viral concern /social media fad/urban legend going around Facebook parenting groups and schools. It’s described as a “suicide game” which combines shock imagery and hidden messaging, and it supposedly encourages kids to attempt dangerous stunts, including suicide.
Earlier this week, “Momo” was the top new trending search team on Google for the US, Australia, Canada and the UK.
However, to the best of everyone’s knowledge, there’s almost no evidence to prove it’s actually a real thing.
Let’s break it down, so you can get back to worrying about other things.
The challenge is hard to pin down …
The Momo Challenge is hard to describe, because there’s not a lot of proof it actually exists. According to concerned Facebook posts, people are placing scary imagery and language into YouTube videos that are supposed to be child-friendly, like cartoons and toy reviews. The “challenge” has also been reported on WhatsApp, where it may come in the form of disturbing images and text messages sent from unknown contacts.
The image is usually of a (pretty terrifying) doll with long hair and bulging eyes. The creepy sculpture is actually the work of a Japanese special effects company called Link Factory, and it, along with the artist and the company, have nothing to do with the so-called “challenge.”
The messages accompanying the image are said to encourage children to do destructive things, like harm their loved ones, place themselves in dangerous situations or even kill themselves. So far, in addition to social media posts, several schools in the UK have issued warnings to parents about the Momo Challenge. A UK safety organization claims hundreds of worried parents have contacted them with questions. In the US, several sheriff’s departments have put out notes informing parents about it.
… and the threat is anecdotal at best
Actual verified accounts of kids coming across these Momo videos or messages are scant. According to Snopes, the fact-checking site, the 2018 suicide deaths of two boys in India were linked in news reports to the the Momo Challenge. Other people cited in the report claimed to have gotten invitations to the game in the messaging program WhatsApp.
In late February, a woman in Sacramento claimed her 12-year-old daughter turned on a gas stove after watching videos that contained surprise clips of the Momo figure. There have also been reports in the UK that children as young as five have, according to their parents, threatened violence on behalf of the Momo character.
This seems like cause for concern. But here’s the thing: Anyone can post pretty much anything to YouTube at any time, so it’s impossible to say there aren’t creepy videos floating around that display harmful content. Is it a problem worthy of special attention? Experts don’t think so.
“Is there a prevalent, global phenomenon of Momo popping up in kids’ WhatsApp accounts and YouTube videos and urging them to harm themselves or others? That claim appears to be fear-driven exaggeration lacking in supportive evidence,” David Mikkelson, the founder of Snopes.com, tells CNN (Snopes has covered the phenomenon with skepticism).
But the publicity may give trolls ideas
While there appears to be little evidence that the Momo Challenge is something special to worry about, Mikkelson notes the attention surrounding the challenge may ironically lead people to create videos featuring the Momo content.
“Now that the Momo Challenge legend is out there, have some people used the Momo character to scare and taunt youngsters via WhatsApp or by slipping it into video clips? Possibly some scattered incidents of this have happened,” he says.
Jill Murphy, vice president and editor-in-chief of Common Sense Media, tells CNN the Momo Challenge preys on parents’ (often justified) fears about how social media platforms regulate content.
“So this has been around for a while. And the reason that it’s probably getting the kind of scrutiny and attention that it’s getting is because of its appearance in younger kids’ content,” she says. “And because of that, and because of the accessibility, coupled with the frustration for parents, I think it’s just a fever pitch of, ‘Here’s one more thing that YouTube is exposing kids to and not taking any accountability around.'”
So parents should take control …
As Murphy says, concern around the Momo Challenge may have less to do with the challenge itself and more about the overwhelming apprehension parents feel when staring down the barrel of millions of unregulated YouTube videos and confusing, ever-changing social media apps. So the solution, according to both Murphy and Mikkelson, is clear: Know what your kids are watching, and how they’re watching it.
“We encourage everyone to dissect the messages they’re getting and not be too alarmist,” says Murphy. “But since it calls to mind and brings to the surface the challenges of the YouTube platform for parents — not knowing whether or not they can trust the content — I think that’s what’s coming up the most.”
Mikkelson encourages parents “to be familiar with what uses your children make of social media, and ensure they understand they should let you know if they encounter anything online that seems harmful or threatening.”
… and know these hoaxes aren’t new
If you’re feeling a case of deja vu, it’s because “suicide challenges,” online urban myths and other internet horror stories crop up all the time.
You may recall the Blue Whale Suicide Game from a few years ago, which made the rounds on social media but had little evidence to back up its dangers. More lighthearted challenges, like the great Tide Pod eating phenomenon of 2018, seemed to draw more jokes and parody than actual incidents.
Perhaps the most significant real-life consequence from these online legends manifested in 2014, when two Wisconsin girls repeatedly stabbed their friend and claimed Slenderman, a fictional character born on internet message boards, made them do it. One teen was sentenced to 25 years to life in a psychiatric institution, and the other was sentenced to 40 years in a mental health facility.