The 'Momo challenge' isn't a viral danger to children online, but it sure is viral
If you're a parent of a young child, chances are that someone on Facebook has sent you an alarming post about the "Momo challenge," a game illustrated by a disturbing photograph of a woman, in which participants are blackmailed into completing increasingly dangerous tasks. Maybe that post says that Momo is the latest "trend."
Momo was perfectly tuned to set off alarms in the mind of any parent: There's something online that you don't know about, and it's about to kill or traumatize your child. Just one problem: There's little evidence to confirm that the Momo challenge is real. Although multiple deaths are often attributed to the challenge in warnings about it, none have actually been confirmed.
The panic over Momo followed a familiar pattern established by other supposedly viral "challenges" -- the condom challenge and Tide pod challenge, for example -- that caused a lot of hand-wringing but few, if any, documented injuries. The viral spread of this kind of story may say less about the danger these challenges pose to young people and more about the fear that the internet inspires in parents.
On Feb. 17, a parent anonymously sent in a warning about the Momo challenge to a Facebook group for the town of Westhoughton, England. "I'm deeply alarmed I have discovered when I collected (my kid) today ... the teacher asked to talk to me. She said (my kid) had made three kids cry by telling them that 'Momo was going to go into their room at night and kill them.'" The post contained a description of the challenge and urged other parents in town to talk to their kids about bad people online.
That post soon became an article in a local paper. It was then picked up by national tabloids like the Daily Mail and Daily Star. Many of those reports focus on a particularly dark detail from the legend of the challenge: that its ultimate goal is to convince participants to kill themselves on camera. "Suicide game hits Britain," read one of the Star's headlines.
As word of the Momo challenge spread, the Mail followed up with stories advising parents on how to handle it.
As local police stations and parents began picking up on the viral warnings and issuing their own, more legitimate outlets like the BBC also jumped into the fray. And then, the warnings spread to America. A Florida news station claimed Momo was "the latest trend on social media." Kim Kardashian shared one of the posts going viral that warned about it.
Whatever their intention, the person who put up the anonymous Westhoughton Facebook post set off a chain of events that made warnings about the Momo challenge go viral -- even if there's little evidence to suggest that the disturbing prank is popular at all among the kids that concerned parents are now rushing to protect. As New York Magazine wrote in an examination of the latest panic, it's "a little strange that we're once again talking about Momo in 2019. Strange, but given the way the web works, not that surprising."
Momo has spread online not as a viral threat to children, but as a panic-induced news topic about a perceived viral threat to children. And like many viral challenges, Momo has spread on kernels of truth about the real dangers of the internet for young children, appended to a repeated pattern of bad reporting on dangerous viral trends targeting children -- which often turn out to be not trending at all.
Last year, a viral panic about the condom challenge spread through Parent internet, warning about a "trend" encouraging kids to snort a condom up their nose and pull it out of their mouths to get views on social media. The Washington Post traced the origins of that story, which generated headlines across the country, to a presentation attended by a small group of San Antonio parents in March 2018.
The presentation mentioned the condom challenge as an example of a dangerous viral teen challenge. Educators in San Antonio gave the same presentations for years. But on this date, a local news crew was present. Their report on the presentation was then aggregated by news outlets across the country, who focused in on the condom challenge and deemed it "every parent's worst nightmare," "the latest dangerous social media trend" and "trending" among teens.
It wasn't trending. Instead, The condom challenge was briefly popular on YouTube in 2013, thanks to a couple of viral videos of people attempting it. The Post found no evidence that anyone on YouTube had tried the challenge for years. Instead, search results were full of videos warning about it. The same pattern has been repeated with the Tide pod challenge, the deodorant challenge, and to some extent, the Bird Box challenge.
Momo is similar: It is true that an extremely creepy image of a woman with bulging eyes and black hair has become a modern monster of online culture, one that has been in and out of the news cycle as reports and warnings pop up about the challenge. But the details that bolster its legend as something parents should be worried about don't hold up. As The Post reported in September, when the challenge previously made the news, three deaths are often attributed to the challenge, but none of those reports have an actual, proven connection.
Another warning, posted first to Facebook and then reposted to Twitter (where it has tens of thousands of retweets) claims that videos showing Momo are rampant on YouTube and YouTube Kids: "It doesn't come on instantly so it's almost as if it waits for you to leave the room then comes on in mid show. It's been seen on Peppa Pig, LOL DOLL, those surprise eggs, and a few others." But when The Post attempted to find any of these videos, we came up short. Instead, several popular YouTube videos warned about the possibility of a Momo scare in videos targeting kids. In others promising to show "proof" the rumors were real, the proof was often less than convincing.
But this warning, too, feeds off some real concerns about what children are exposed to on YouTube. The Post reported earlier this week on parents who were finding disturbing, violent clips spliced into videos targeted to children on the platform. But there's no evidence that Momo videos trying to trick children into self harm are viral on YouTube or YouTube Kids. If they exist at all, they're extremely hard to find. In a statement, YouTube also denied that Momo was spreading across their platform.
"After much review, we've seen no recent evidence of videos promoting the Momo Challenge on YouTube," the statement reads. "Videos encouraging harmful and dangerous challenges are clearly against our policies, the Momo challenge included. Despite press reports of this challenge surfacing, we haven't had any recent links flagged or shared with us from YouTube that violate our Community Guidelines."
As the Guardian noted, one of the more disturbing things about Momo's viral spread as a warning to parents is the seriousness of the underlying topic of suicide. Samaritans, a UK-based suicide prevention organization, told the Guardian that they were concerned all the coverage of the Momo challenge was "raising the risk of harm" for vulnerable people. "These stories being highly publicized and starting a panic means vulnerable people get to know about it and that creates a risk."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, risk factors associated with suicide may include mental disorders such as clinical depression, previous suicide attempts, a barrier to accessing mental health treatment, physical illness and feelings of hopelessness or isolation. Those who need help, including children, can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.