The Momo challenge is nothing to be scared of – so why are these cyber hoaxes so popular?

Cyberbullying and a culture of glorifying self-harm exist online. But rather than resorting to panic, open dialogue with young people is the way forward

Kuba Shand-Baptiste
Wednesday 27 February 2019 14:37 GMT
Momo 'challenge': The horrifying trend police say is terrorising children

Every once in a while, an internet phenomenon so bizarre, and so apparently dangerous that it pushes parents and authorities into overdrive, arrives on the scene. Sometimes the threat is relatively real. “Extreme selfie” challenges, in which people put themselves in dangerous positions in order to get the perfect Instagram shot, are a pertinent example.

And sometimes they aren’t: the “condom snorting” challenge of 2018, wherein publications reported that young, wannabe YouTube influencers had been swept by a craze of sucking condoms through their noses and pulling them out of their mouths, was revealed to be nothing but a rumour after overdue fact-checking took place.

There are more challenges like these. 2014 saw unsubstantiated claims that kids were consumed with a “smoking bed bugs” challenge (which is exactly what it sounds like). The debunked “72-hour” challenge, which apparently encouraged children to scare their parents by disappearing for three days at a time, resurfaced as recently as mid-February, with reports that a new “48-hour” challenge is sweeping the globe.

And this week, the deadly prank causing unnecessary panic among parents and police alike, is the “Momo suicide” challenge, which, like so many others, doesn’t seem to be the immediate threat authorities first believed.

The premise of the challenge, supposedly, is to bully young people into self-harming, or dying by suicide – a matter of legitimate concern, given the number of social media-related deaths among young people in recent years.

YouTube bans dangerous prank videos and challenges after people drive cars blindfolded

It’s been suggested that as part of the so-called challenge, children around the world are being increasingly targeted by bullies who pose as “Momo” – a nightmarish doll with damp, straggly black hair a la Sadako Yamamura from Japanese horror, Ring; almost comically bulging eyes, and a wide slit of a smile quite literally stretching from ear to ear – on messaging platforms like WhatsApp. Then, once the Momo posers persuade their targets to add them as contacts, the challenge begins.

Or does it?

According to Snopes, the fact-checking website, Momo isn’t quite as new as we think. In fact, suggestions that it was indeed behind a number of suicides among teenagers surfaced in July 2018, after the Buenos Aires Times in Argentina claimed police had linked the challenge to a 12-year-old girl’s death. But while it was true that the girl had indeed died by suicide at home, it was apparently never proven that the “challenge” itself, as opposed to a malicious individual, was solely responsible for encouraging her to take her own life.

It seems the frightening image of Momo itself wasn’t created with the intention of bolstering the challenge either. In fact, the doll, originally called “Mother Bird” has been traced back to a Japanese special effects company called Link Factory.

Of course, this doesn’t negate the fact that cyberbullying and a culture of glorifying self-harming exists on the internet. The devastating deaths of young people like Molly Russell, and Sophie Parkinson and Daniel Long, to name a few, do point to a real problem with a lack of regulation on the part of social media platforms.

And I suppose that’s precisely why these hoaxes work. It’s a terrifying prospect, knowing that a child, perhaps even your own, could be so in tune with potentially dangerous online communities while you remain completely in the dark. I’ve had the same fears about my own social media obsessed, and occasionally worryingly naive, 14 year-old brother.

Who is he talking to? What if someone’s encouraging him to do something he doesn’t want to do? Is he safe? My sisters and I often wonder, unable to shake the fear that this taller than his years, young, black boy could fall prey to something he didn’t understand.

Underlying that fear is the discomforting reality that, as 20 and 30-somethings, we’ll never truly understand or have access to whatever social media bubbles teenagers are constantly immersed in.

It was the same when I was at school, and fears about teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections were sky high, particularly in the borough of Brent, where I’m from, which exceeded the national and London average at several points between 1999 and 2004.

Rumours that brightly coloured plastic jelly bracelets, which just about every pre-teen and teenager I knew had, were actually secret code for a variety of sex acts, were rife at the time. It even gave me pause at one stage, because I was afraid that wearing a certain colour would give off the wrong message about what I was or wasn’t up to.

The point is, while there are reasons to be concerned about the wellbeing of young people online, buying into barely fact-checked reports as a means of feeding our own fears, isn’t helpful, even if it’s more than a little bit tempting. The best thing we can do as individuals, is to remain vigilant, do our own research before mindlessly sharing claims that have little to no basis in the truth, and keep a dialogue open with the young people in our lives.

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