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UPDATE: YouTube announced that they would no longer allow videos featuring Momo to be monetized — to feature ads before, after or during the clips — even if they come from respected news organizations who are reporting on the phenomenon, which is widely seen to be a hoax.
From Slender Man to kids eating detergent pods, there’s a long and rich history of creepy internet challenges freaking out parents. The latest addition to this time-honored tradition is Momo, an online challenge that’s purportedly sort of a combination of the Black Mirror episode “Shut Up and Dance” and Blue Whale. Momo allegedly targets young children by encouraging them to text a number on WhatsApp, which then sends them instructions to complete a series of increasingly bizarre and dangerous tasks from watching a horror movie to engaging in self-harm to taking their own lives.
Although reports of the Momo challenge have been floating around the darker corners of the internet for some time, the trend recently made the news again when a Facebook post from the Police Service of Northern Island (PSNI) recently issued a public warning to parents urging them to supervise their kids’ activity on WhatsApp. There have also been reports of trolls editing kid-friendly YouTube videos to include images of Momo, as well as instructions encouraging them to self-harm.
Here’s a basic summary of the Momo challenge, and whether or not it’s actually cause for concern.
What is Momo, and where did it come from? It probably wouldn’t shock anyone to learn that the image of “Momo,” while undeniably terrifying, has virtually nothing to do with the “Momo Challenge” itself. The bug-eyed girl with matted hair and wraithlike limbs that’s associated with Momo is actually a sculpture made by Keisuke Aisawa of the Link Factory, a Japanese company that makes horror film props and special effects. The sculpture was displayed at a show at the Gen (Vanilla) Gallery, a gallery in Tokyo’s Ginza district, way back in August 2016. With her bird-like claws, she may be inspired by the Japanese bird woman, or ubume, a wraith-like figure who is said to have died during childbirth.
After the photos were posted on Instagram, they started to gain traction on Reddit, particularly the subreddit r/creepy, where it garnered thousands of upvotes and comments.
Though the actual origins of the Momo Challenge itself are unclear, it reportedly made its rounds in the Spanish-speaking world first, with Mexican authorities claiming that the trend stemmed from a Facebook group. But per Google trends, the Momo challenge didn’t really pick up steam in the English-speaking world until YouTuber ReignBot made a video devoted to unpacking the phenomenon in July 2018. According to the video, those who texted “Momo’s” number were told to complete a series of bizarre and increasingly dangerous tasks, starting with something innocent, like watching a horror movie late at night, and ending with a call for kids to self-harm or take their own lives. Failure to complete the tasks apparently would result in their personal information being leaked or threats of violence.
Although ReignBot’s video in large part debunked the phenomenon, pointing out the relatively innocuous origins of “Momo,” stories nonetheless started circulating in the English-speaking press about the dangers of the Momo challenge, quoting internet safety “experts” urging parents to watch out for warning signs that their children were playing the game. One oft-cited report suggests that a 12-year-old girl in Buenos Aires took her own life as a result of playing the Momo challenge, but such reports appear to be poorly sourced and unconfirmed. There are also a number of “3 a.m. Momo challenges” on YouTube, though they appear to be more intended as comedic videos than anything else.
Reports have also surfaced of YouTube videos featuring kid-friendly characters like Peppa Pig or Splatoon gameplays being edited with images of Momo, as well as instructions for children to self-harm. Such videos appear to be made by trolls with the express intention of trying to disturb children. “One kid might turn it off, but another kid who’s more vulnerable may leave it on,” said Dr. April Foreman, licensed psychologist, executive board member of the American Association of Suicidology.
Should people actually be concerned?
The Momo Challenge and the subsequent moral panic it has spawned is eerily similar to that inspired by the “Blue Whale” challenge, a Russia-based phenomenon that went viral last year. According to reports in the Russian media, the Blue Whale challenge involved teenagers following a series of increasingly self-harmful tasks over the course of 50 days, culminating with them being encouraged to take their own lives.
As is the case with most viral challenges, there was a grain of truth to reports of the Blue Whale challenge: There had been a recent rash of teen suicides in Russia (which has a higher-than-average teen suicide rate), and a man named Philipp Budeikin was arrested and charged with spawning the trend by organizing the game on social media. But most of the charges were later dropped, and it has since been reported that Budeikin likely created the groups as a way to promote his music career.
Additional reports linking Blue Whale to other teen suicides, like that of 15-year-old Isaiah Gonzalez from San Antonio, have proven to be largely uncorroborated. “There’s no real truth to [games like the Momo Challenge] or evidence that it’s a real threat,” says Benjamin Radford, a folklorist and research fellow for the Committee for Skeptic Inquiry. He claims that phenomena like Blue Whale and the Momo Challenge are “part of a moral panic, fueled by parents’ fears in wanting to know what their kids are up to…You have adults, who may be baby boomers — maybe they don’t text, maybe they’re not comfortable with technology. They’re wondering, ‘My daughter is always on my phone, who’s she talking to? What’s going on there?’ There’s an inherent fear in what young people are doing with technology.”
Even the North Ireland police department, which issued a warning against Momo in the first place, seems to believe the threat has largely been overstated, writing in another Facebook post that, “Even basic open source research suggests that ‘Momo’ is run by hackers who are looking for personal info….as creepy as she looks, `Momo` isn’t going to crawl out of your child’s phone and kill them.”
That said, experts on mental health have cautioned that such hysterical news coverage could potentially prove harmful, possibly even inspiring imitators. Take, for instance, the case of the two 12-year-old girls from Wisconsin who attempted to stab their best friend to death, later claiming that they did so to appease the fictional internet boogeyman Slender Man. While there is no evidence that Slender Man exists, the case “is instructive, because Slender Man doesn’t have to exist in order for people to act on it,” cautions Radford.
Even if the risks associated with challenges like the Momo Challenge are overblown, that’s not to say that children aren’t at risk of being exploited by predators on the internet. Per a 2017 viral essay by tech writer James Bridle, popular platforms like YouTube are flooded with content creators who exploit the platform’s algorithm in order to create disturbing and often violent videos that are specifically targeted at children, often using popular kids’ characters; YouTube, by all accounts, has done little to crack down on such content. Further, YouTube has lost advertisers over recent reports that pedophiles were congregating in the platform’s comments sections, sometimes even posting links to actual child porn in the process.
Like all urban legends, “there’s a kernel of truth to [online suicide challenges], in that cyberbullying does happen. Sexual extortion does happen,” says Radford. “These things are real, and they do happen. So that makes it plausible to parents and school administrators.”
Parents who are concerned about their kids being exposed to disturbing images on social media should have a frank conversation with them about their internet use, says Foreman. “We need to remind parents that things are happening that are sort of the new media analogues of strangers giving out candy on the side of the road,” she says. In addition to implementing parental controls and filters on all of their kids’ devices, parents should also “say [to their kids], ‘You may see some weird stuff, if you do turn it off. Just let me know,’” she says.
But while the risk of seeing disturbing content on social media is all too real, the idea of a mysterious cabal of tech-savvy sociopaths communicating with kids via WhatsApp and urging them to kill themselves is too ludicrous to maintain an air of plausibility. “If you think about it, adults have a hard time getting teens to clean up their rooms, much less get kids to perform a series of increasingly bizarre tasks for 50 days consecutively,” says Radford.
Ultimately, the internet is a pretty scary place for kids, and parents have a lot to freak out about as is. There’s probably no need to add a shrieking bird lady sculpture from Japan to the list.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with a quote from Dr. April Foreman.
Anyone experiencing a crisis is encouraged to call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741-741.