By now you’ve probably heard a lot about the Momo Challenge, a deadly online game that’s been scaring the daylights out of students - and parents - around the world. The object? To drive players to self-harm or suicide with the threat of making their private information public
Is Momo a hoax? Is it real? Only one thing is clear: the Momo phenomenon has left many educators and parents confused about what it all means, and how to respond to keep children safe.
To help our school communities separate the facts from the fake news, we spoke to Family Zone cyber expert and child psychologist Jordan Foster from ySafe.
But first, some background.
At the centre of the hysteria that has gripped the world is the character Momo - a creepy bird-woman with bulging eyes, stringy black hair, and a boomerang-shaped mouth.
Momo is purported to hack into users’ mobiles, once they engage with her by sharing their phone number, then send disturbing and graphic photos. Users are then challenged to perform ‘dares’, including acts of self-harm, or face the consequences of having their secrets and private information shared online.
When it first surfaced in 2018, the Momo challenge was linked to a number of teen suicides around the world. But digging deeper into the scandal - as many reputable news organisations have now done - none of these incidents has been substantiated.
Is there a ‘real’ Momo involved? Was there ever? Experts say: very likely not.
Nevertheless, in recent days, reports of Momo images and animations cropping up on YouTube and YouTube Kids have rekindled the panic.
This time around, say experts, the Momo invasion simply the result of kids scaring other kids (and themselves) by copying and sharing creepy images and videos - and parental anxiety and social-media-sharing fanning flames - and all of it in response to widespread, unverified reporting by the media.
The take-home message? Momo is well and truly ‘fake news’ - a digital bogeyman of global proportions.
But that doesn’t mean that the fear isn’t real. Or that Momo hasn’t been a useful disguise for a handful of cyberbullies of all ages. As the New York Times reported this week, “Momo is as real as we’ve made her.”
So what lessons, if any, can we take away from the Momo phenomenon? And what can educators and parents do to protect their children from this and similar incidents? We asked acclaimed cyber expert and child psychologist Jordan Foster, managing director of educational consultancy ySafe, to share her insights.
Q : What are your thoughts about the Momo challenge?
A: The Momo Challenge presents two key learning opportunities for us as members of a digital community. The first is that fact-checking is essential before investing our worry and concern into something we’ve read. Much of what is posted online is done so by unreliable sources who are seeking attention or notoriety. People’s trust can be easily exploited when information shared implies a threat to our children’s safety.
Secondly, the relief about the ‘fake news’ nature of Momo should not deter parents from being vigilant about what their child is looking at online. There is an abundance of inappropriate and harmful content posted on platforms like YouTube and YouTube for Kids. Pornographic content and violent videos continue to seep into these video platforms that are beloved by our kids. This dark Momo challenge therefore serves as a timely reminder that we need to be active in our child’s digital lives, and safeguarding them every time they enter into the online world.
Q : What advice would you give to parents?
A: Fact check, always. What’s more, make sure you fact check to credible sources of information. Blog posts, social media comments and YouTube videos uploaded by unverified authors are not valid sources of information.
Use parental control tools to block access to inappropriate or unsafe websites and apps. One of the most important features of a parental control tool is the report that parents receive about what has been blocked, and WHY. Make sure you regularly read the reports about why an app or website has been blocked. This helps improve your knowledge and keeps you up-to-date on current cyber safety threats.
Talk to your kids about how information is posted on the internet. Teach them the difference between credible news websites and people sharing opinions or experiences. During the talk, discuss with them what they can do if they ever feel scared or worried about something they have seen online. Kids feel empowered and less distressed by online content when they are equipped with information about how to protect themselves.
Q : What advice would you give to students?
A: There are some great people on the internet posting some amazing stuff, but sometimes there are nasty people who post things that try and scare and upset us. We’re all lucky in that we are in control of what we look at and what we don’t. So if you ever see something that seems strange, upsets you or asks you to do something you think is worrisome, turn it off and talk to a trusted adult about it.
How can Family Zone help?
Family Zone’s School Manager offers a number of on-network solutions to managing harmful or inappropriate content, including YouTube restricted mode enforcement and Layer 7 application filtering to help block network access on student devices.
But today’s mobile learning devices are, by definition, mobile. And that means they travel off-network and off-campus - out of reach of even the most stringent school settings. Family Zone’s Mobile Zone app solves the problem. It lets parents take over the management of devices outside of school hours and when they leave school grounds.
Whether it’s helping to filter what your students can access, or educating staff, parents and students about online safety and well-being, Family Zone can help schools tackle issues like Momo. To find out how we can help your school community, please get in touch here
The 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.