How Viral Internet ‘Scares’ Get the Best of Parents
Parents around the world had their kids’ safety and well-being at heart when they spread the word to warn others about the so-called Momo challenge, the scary-looking woman with bulging eyes who reportedly popped up on young people’s devices via the WhatsApp messaging service. But in a cruel twist of fate, it turns out that the widespread panic that ensued was potentially more harmful than the bug-eyed creature.
The scary woman wasn’t actually real, and it was the urban legend sweeping the globe that gave kids nightmares. In fact, the Momo challenge is only the most recent of several viral “challenges” in which the risk to kids was overestimated or even escalated by worried parents.
Momo Challenge Madness
The Momo challenge was supposedly a viral game shared on WhatsApp and other messaging services, giving kids orders — via the aforementioned super-creepy, bug-eyed woman — to perform acts of extreme violence or even die by suicide. Depending on what report you read, her ghastly presence also infiltrated YouTube videos featuring children’s favorite Peppa Pig and multi-player video game phenomenon Fortnite, or popped up on Snapchat. But you’ll struggle to find a first-person account of this, because in reality, it was a viral hoax.
The truth behind the scary lady-bird hybrid (her cleavage is attached to oversize chicken legs) is that she’s a statue called “Mother Bird,” the creation of artist Keisuke Aisawa, who works with Japanese special effects company Link Factory. Images of “Mother Bird” first appeared online as early as 2016 — over two years before the Momo challenge was first reported.
Misleading News Reports
In July 2018, an image of “Mother Bird” was uploaded to Reddit, which is what likely planted the first seeds of what would evolve into the Momo hoax. In July 2018, a story about the suicide of a 12-year-old girl in Argentina was linked to Momo; a report in the Buenos Aires Times said authorities were “investigating whether she was motivated to take her own life because of the so-called Momo Game, a WhatsApp-based terror game that originates from Japan.”
The connection was never confirmed, but the story was given legs when, just one month later, reports of a supposed suicide pact in Colombia was also linked to Momo. Again, that connection was never confirmed. But it wasn’t long before the U.S. media — and the police — had picked up on the “risk.”
In early 2019, the story reached the U.K., and was taken seriously. Schools sent emails to parents warning them of the “Momo suicide game,” and police drew attention “to instances where the [woman] appeared to encourage children to hold a knife to their throat and threatened their family.” The Police Service of Northern Ireland even issued an advisory asking parents to be aware of the meme. The fervent response in the U.K. triggered another wave of hysteria in the U.S.
A warning from Twitter user Wanda Maximoff reached parents all over the world thanks to tens of thousands of retweets. The post, which was later deleted, read: “Warning! Please read, this is real,” and attached a screenshot of a Facebook post, which read, “There is a thing called ‘Momo’ that’s instructing kids to kill themselves. INFORM EVERYONE YOU CAN.”
Mom-of-three Kim Kardashian West got involved, using her considerable social media influence to increase the panic. Kardashian West asked her 129 million Instagram followers to pressure YouTube into deleting videos that supposedly featured Momo. Various local and national TV and online news reports followed, giving parents advice on how to protect their kids from the dangerous game.
Lack of Evidence
What was most concerning to parents was the claim — repeated by several reputable media outlets — that the Momo challenge was connected to 130 teen suicides in Russia. But there was no evidence to support this, and nor were there any examples of corroborated versions of the Momo challenge, such as screenshots of threatening messages.
The UK Safer Internet Centre called the claims “fake news,” and a YouTube spokesperson said it had seen “no recent evidence of videos promoting the Momo challenge” on the video-sharing platform. However, some experts warned that the media hysteria could put vulnerable young people at risk by putting the idea of self-harm on their radar.
So, it seems that while parents undoubtedly have plenty of reasons to worry about their kids and social media, the Momo challenge isn’t one of them.
Blue Whale Challenge
The Momo challenge isn’t the first of its kind either. Another online “suicide game” aimed at teenagers was the so-called Blue Whale challenge, consisting of a series of 50 tasks to be carried out over 50 days. These ranged in severity from the relatively harmless — “watch a scary film” to “cut a whale into your arm.” The 50th and final challenge was to kill yourself.
Hundreds of deaths in Russia were linked to the Blue Whale challenge, but it turns out that the game probably didn’t exist in the first place, at least not outside the realms of media speculation. Nonetheless, it caused panic so widespread that the governor for Ulyanovsk in western Russia even appeared on television to compare the Blue Whale challenge to the Islamic State group.
Tide Pod Challenge
In 2016, small online communities started joking about eating the colorful detergent capsules known as Tide pods, which may look appetizing to young kids but most definitely aren’t safe for consumption. (The conversation may have been triggered by an article in the Onion in late 2015, titled “So Help Me God, I’m Going to Eat One of Those Multi-Colored Detergent Pods.”)
The joke didn’t go viral until late 2017, when a meme about eating Tide pods picked up steam on social media. It wasn’t long before YouTube challengers (people who film themselves doing crazy or dangerous things to get views) jumped on the bandwagon. In January 2018, YouTuber Aaron Swan made the first version of the Tide pod challenge — but he didn’t actually eat the Tide pod, and therein lay the real message behind this particular “challenge.” It’s a really bad idea to eat Tide pods.
Unfortunately, some teenagers didn’t get the memo about irony and did actually eat Tide pods, but it was far from the global trend the media would have had us believe. According to TIME, there were 53 cases of intentional misuse of Tide pods in teenagers in 2017, and 39 cases in the first 15 days of 2018, which does suggest the problem was on the rise. However, consumer protection groups have been warning people about laundry pods since 2013, and exposure is far more likely to occur in kids younger than five, or in elderly adults with Alzheimer’s or dementia, than in teenagers.
In 2018, parents had another reason to worry about how their kids were misusing things that have a very specific purpose. It’s unclear whether the “condom snorting challenge” was actually a real thing or simply a few teenagers who wanted to freak out — and poke fun at — the media. The basis of this challenge is pretty obvious: You inhale an unwrapped condom through your nose and spit it out through your mouth — something that’s foolish at best and fatal at worst, as the condom could block the airway and cause choking.
Some parents were so worried about the condom snorting challenge that they attended information classes on dangerous trends, “because these days our teens are doing everything for likes, views and subscribers," said San Antonio state education specialist Stephen Enriquez. "As graphic as it is, we have to show parents because teens are going online looking for challenges and recreating them."
That’s not the whole truth, however, because teenagers have always being trying silly stuff, long before the internet and YouTube and the lure of going viral. In fact, the condom snorting challenge may stem back as far as 1993, when Kent University’s campus newspaper, the Daily Kent Stater, wrote about the “Jim Rose Circus Sideshow,” whose opening act involved Matt “The Tube” Crowley inhaling a condom through his nose and spitting it out of his mouth.
If You Fell for Momo, You’re Not Alone
It’s no surprise that even the most tech-savvy, streetwise parents believed that the Momo challenge posed a genuine threat to their kids. People tend to believe what they read when it’s backed up by numerous reputable sources and reinforced by law enforcement agencies.
Parental instinct and the old saying, “better safe than sorry” drives us to take steps to protect our children — and what is true is that suicide was the second-leading cause of death in children aged 10 to 14 in 2017. No parent shared their Momo fears with the intention of putting young children more at risk.
Expert Advice: Get the Facts
To avoid getting caught up in the hysteria surrounding any future online hoaxes aimed at young people — and there will be more, because that’s part and parcel of the internet age — licensed clinical psychologist and board certified neurotherapist Dr. Catherine Jackson recommends arming yourself and your children with knowledge and facts.
“In the case of the Momo hoax, simple internet research reveals no credible reports of children actually harming themselves as a result of this,” says Dr. Jackson. “Hoaxes and harmful challenges like this will pop up from time to time. It seems as soon as one dies down another one is started and goes viral.”
Communicate With Your Kids
The best way to stay abreast of what’s going on in the digital world is to talk to your child, because they know a lot more than you do about the latest internet trends. “This kind of communication should be ongoing and not simply occur when there is a current craze in the news,” advises Dr. Jackson. “Such consistent, ongoing conversations will help you decipher your child's thinking and decision-making abilities as to how they may handle scary media challenges and hoaxes.”
And if you have a child who is more prone to falling prey to these types of things, she suggests talking to them about ways they can handle all types of situations to help them build healthy decision-making skills they can rely on throughout their life.
Trust Your Parenting
Nobody is a perfect parent. We all make mistakes — and can learn a great deal from them. It’s important to trust your parenting, says Dr. Jackson.
Trust that the lessons you have taught your child have given them tools to rely on when they need them. Trust that they will make good decisions and not fall prey to things that will harm them or others. Trust that they have listened to your advice, even if it doesn’t always seem that way.
Accept Your Fear
Fear isn’t a comfortable response to anything, but it’s a natural part of life and parenting — and it stems from love, says Dr. Jackson.
“However, fear will only ignite and elevate your stress levels, making it difficult for your brain to think clearly and make appropriate decisions,” she says. “By simply accepting that you are fearful and normalizing it as a part of parenting, you can help to reduce it.”
Explore Relaxation Techniques
Dr. Jackson suggests trying deep breathing, mindfulness and other relaxation techniques to help you normalize your fear and combat the anxiety you may experience when you hear or read distressing things in the media.
“This will help calm your brain so you can more easily think through how to deal with the information and come up with any actions you need to take to address it with your child in the right way,” she says.
Focus on What You Can Control
You can’t do anything about what other people post on social media, write about on news sites or talk to their friends about. But you do have control over lots of other things. “Parents who worry excessively can ask themselves two questions: Firstly, ‘What is the worst thing I can imagine happening?’ and secondly, ‘How likely is that?’” says psychologist Shane G. Owens, Ph.D., ABPP, who is board certified in behavioral and cognitive psychology.
In the case of online hoaxes like the Momo challenge, the worst thing you can imagine happening is your child dying by suicide. But this is where the second question, “How likely is that?” is crucial. Every child is different, and there’s no “one size fits all” when it comes to mental illness. But by paying close attention to your child, arming yourself with knowledge (such as the most common warning signs of depression and suicide) and, crucially, keeping those lines of communication open, there should be less cause for concern.