The Momo Challenge: What Parents really need to know
Last year my youngest lad came home from school terrified as he had heard that a “killer clown” with a huge knife had been seen nearby. His cousin piped in very earnestly that killer clowns did indeed exist, he’d seen it on YouTube. It took the best part of the afternoon to persuade them that this was just a scary notion that someone had dreamed up. It had gone viral to the point that it had inspired countless YouTube videos, reports of sightings, and endless Halloween costumes and pranks.
Killer clowns are now thankfully last year’s news but many of you will have heard about the so called “Momo Challenge” this week following some often sensationalist media reporting that has only served to terrify parents, and in turn kids.
CyberSafeIreland has been inundated by enquiries about Momo, mainly from the media. We made it very clear from the start that we had seen no evidence of Irish children being harmed by this. Indeed, until this week, we have not come across children even talking about this in the classroom, even though the concept has been around for some months. We made the reluctant decision to stop engaging with the media on this, as we reached the conclusion that we were only feeding the monster as such, which wasn’t helping anyone.
So what do we know about the Momo Challenge? Momo has been reported widely as a creepy image that pops up in a child’s social media feed, and that the child is then sent instructions with various challenges, including requests that they self-harm. The image, that of a creepy looking female puppet with bulging eyes, does exist. It was apparently created by a Japanese artist, although reportedly not for the purpose for which it is now being used.
This image, and the concept of Momo cursing you if you don’t fulfil the challenge, has gone viral, popping up in lots of YouTube videos and elsewhere online. I think we can safely say that after this week’s media coverage, it is also the talk of the playground in many Irish schools and it a cause for concern for principals as well as parents - many of whom have contacted us.
But is it real? We have seen nothing to suggest that the Momo Challenge is anything more than a hoax that has grown legs through a lot of circular media reporting. It does certainly exist as an idea, or meme (Internet-based theme), but that is most likely all that it is. There is plenty of scary content online relating to it, which children could come across, and there is nothing to stop someone mimicking the idea of it via social media or gaming platforms.
But before you relax completely, let’s be clear. If your child is using social media or messaging apps, or if they are gaming online, then it is absolutely possible that someone could contact them and ask them to do just about anything. This is especially the case if you have not looked at privacy or safety settings on their apps or games. There is also a very real risk that they will come across content online that is harmful or upsetting. This could be anything from scary images to violence or hard core pornography. We think our children are safe when they are tucked up indoors, but the reality is that there are very real risks of harmful content or contact that as parents we must weigh up when we allow our children to go online.
The coverage on Momo has been particularly unhelpful because it focuses on one thing, which has only become an issue because we are all talking about it. Actually there are far more important things to focus on. While we find that the majority of children are having largely positive experiences online, there are both opportunities and risk, and parents need to make informed decisions and to be engaged in their online lives.
Take this opportunity to discuss what they are doing and seeing online, and what they think about it. Make it normal to talk about their online activities. Keep conversations positive as much as possible. We’ve got some great ideas for conversation starters. Check out safety and privacy settings together. If they want to use a particular app or game, do your research first. Commonsensemedia is a great resource if you want to check something out quickly.
Should you talk to them specifically about Momo? What you want is that if they are worried about anything, and I mean anything, that they see or hear online, they will come and talk to you about it. We wouldn’t recommend bringing up Momo (don’t feed the beast) unless they ask you about it specifically or you have strong suspicions that they have heard about it. But have a general conversation about the fact that there are lots of scary things online, and ask if they have heard of or seen any examples of this. Talk about what they would do if anyone asked them to do something that makes them feel uncomfortable or worried. As they get older, talk about the pressure of things like online challenges or dares.
If they have heard about Momo and come home asking about it, then the best thing that you can do is explain that actually it is a nasty idea that has gone viral. Momo does not exist. If someone tells you that you are cursed if you don’t do something, this is not true. Acknowledge their worries and praise them to the high heavens for coming and telling you about it.
Focus on making informed decisions as a parent, setting rules, keeping a close eye on things and having lots and lots of great conversations about how to be stronger, smarter and safer online. Check out some of our great resources and advice in our Parents section.
Cliona Curley is a specialist in cybercrime analysis and investigation and is Programme Director with CyberSafeIreland.