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MOMO unmasked

By now you’ve probably heard a lot about the Momo Challenge, a deadly online game that’s been scaring the daylights out of kids - and parents - around the world. The object? To  drive players to self-harm or suicide with the threat of making their private information public.

At the centre of this sick digital blackmail plot, which has been linked to multiple suicides, is the character Momo - a creepy bird-woman with bulging eyes, stringy black hair, and a boomerang-shaped mouth.

If you’re on social media, and you’re a conscientious digital parent, chances are good you’ve seen the posts and read the warnings - some of them from police - about the Momo nightmare. What you probably don't realise is that Momo is an elaborate, media-driven hoax. 

Let’s take it from the top.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and Momo's pic is definitely a killer. In fact, it's so spooky and difficult to un-see that it explains a great deal about this bizarre tale of fake digital news.

momo2The Momo image - featured left - is a cropped picture of a sculpture by Japanese artist Keisuke Aisawa.

It first appeared in a series of Facebook posts in July  2018 challenging readers to message a certain number - variously recorded as having Japanese, Colombian and Mexican country codes.

When added as a WhatsApp contact, all three numbers bombarded players (in Spanish) with threats and obscene images. Players were given an escalating series of dares, culminating in self-inflicted death.

Within weeks, the Buenos Aires Times linked the bizarre ‘game’ with the suicide of a 12-year-old girl. By August, there were reports that Momo phone numbers were appearing in Argentina, Spain, the US, France and Germany.

But just as suddenly as it had surfaced, Momo went to ground.

Why? Possibly because, as many web security experts have maintained, the Momo phenomenon was in all likelihood a sensationalised hoax fuelled by lurid media reports. And there have been exactly zero verified reports of physical harm as a result of it.

Just when you thought it was safe ...

And then - just in the last week - Momo reared her ugly head again, this time in a story in the Mail Online that spread like wildfire on social media. The source of the story was a Facebook post by a British mother whose seven-year-old “made three kids cry by telling them that ‘Momo was going to go into their room at night and kill them,’” according to the child’s teacher.

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Is there a ‘real’ Momo involved? Was there ever? Experts believe the current panic is simply the result of kids scaring other kids (and themselves) by copying and sharing creepy images and videos from 2018.

The menace to our kids has been hideously overblown.

Which is not to say that the fear isn’t real. Or that Momo hasn’t been a useful disguise for a handful of cyberbullies of all ages. But that the ‘menace’ to our kids has been hideously overblown is beyond dispute.

“Keeping your children safe online is of course a primary concern for all parents,” observes cybersecurity expert Rik Ferguson in today’s forbes.com. “But it doesn’t help the cause when parents begin scaring each other by sharing exaggerated Facebook accounts … or when trusted media brands turn anecdotal stories into life or death situations.”

Advice for parents

  • Fact check, fact check, fact check. Don’t rely on other parents (or other parents’ Facebook shares) as definitive sources.

  • Encourage open communication with your kids about dangers and opportunities online

  • Make sure they know they can come to you if they feel worried or scared about anything they experience online.

  • Use strong parental controls to manage screen-time and block inappropriate content. Because you never know when the threat to your child could be very, very real.

(Full disclosure: Family Zone also initially took reports of the Momo ‘game’ at face value. We apologise for not digging deeper before we posted.) 

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Topics: Parental Controls, Screen time, youtube, smartphones, WhatsApp, suicide, self-harm, momo

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