Critical thinking skills in the face of Momo and other viral challenges

If you haven’t heard yet, the latest viral challenge is a viral concern for parents. Momo first appeared in the headlines last summer, and recently reappeared in the media, following warnings from schools in the UK about the sinister-looking character and its associated viral challenge. Momo-related news is now dominating the media and the coverage is prompting parents to become even more concerned over the kind of content their kids may uncover online. The hype is also driving kids to be afraid.

What is Momo? Is the threat real?

Momo is a sinister and scary bird-like character, depicted with a pale female face, stringy black hair, large bulging eyes, and distorted lips curved into an oddly-shaped, evil smile. The visual is incredibly ‘creepy’, to say the least, and it’s this face that supposedly instructs viewers to comply with the viral challenge.

Momo is reported to engage youth online, for instance, through games, WhatsApp or YouTube videos, instructing them to first make contact and then perform a variety of tasks that become increasingly dangerous in nature, up to and including self-harm. It is said that Momo will even threaten individuals who do not comply, which for impressionable youth and their parents, is a cause for concern.

There is discussion about whether or not the Momo challenge is real and if it has been linked to or resulted in harmful behaviours, including suicide. Fact-checking website, Snopes, suggests it may in fact be a hoax, but the reality is that the hype and attention surrounding Momo may be enough to instil fear in kids.

Kids and media-induced fears

Hopefully, your child hasn’t (and doesn’t) come across the Momo Challenge online. But if they do stumble upon this kind of content or hear about it from friends, it’s important to have a conversation about it, ask about their concerns, and acknowledge their fear. Just as you would have a reassuring conversation about the “monster under the bed”, your approach to scary or intimidating online content should be equally as thoughtful. Avoid belittling or downplaying their fear as something silly, so they know you will be supportive if future concerns and fears arise.

The Momo Challenge aside, it is always recommended that parents of younger children screen and approve any online content and/or make time to co-view with younger children.

If your child is older, and in this case, more likely to have at least heard of the viral challenge, you may wish to share with them the origins of Momo – it is a character created by a Japanese special effects company! You can also have a conversation about fact vs. fiction, but again, this may be best reserved for older kids who are more receptive to a rational conversation about their fears. Learn more about dealing with fear and media on the MediaSmarts website, or see the Canadian Paediatric Society’s tips on “Taming the monsters”.

Talking to your kids about viral challenges

The Momo Challenge serves as a good reminder for parents to have ongoing conversations with their children about the Internet, social media and even viral challenges they may come across. Talk to your kids about peer pressure and remind them they should never feel pressured into doing anything – online or otherwise – that they don’t feel comfortable doing.

To throw it way back, I recall kids at school scaring each other with tales of “Bloody Mary”. We’d challenge each other to go into the bathroom, turn off the lights, shut the door and whisper “Bloody Mary” three times and then report back on what happened. Today, thanks to social media and the ease in which a “challenge” can be shared and documented online, challenges are more common place, making it important for us to discuss them with youth.

In some cases, viral challenges can help drive increased awareness and better social outcomes, or simply be harmless fun as we saw with the ALS Ice Bucket challenge and Mannequin Challenge. But in some instances, these challenges can put youth in serious danger. Consider recent examples such as the TidePod, Slender Man, Blue Whale and Bird Box Challenges. Unfortunately, impressionable youth can be drawn to challenges like these in an attempt to seek acceptance and gain popularity online, and/or simply in response to peer pressure.

If your child is using social media, and therefore likely to stumble upon a viral challenge in their digital experiences, here are some talking points to get the conversation started:

  • Have they heard about any viral social media challenges?  If so, which ones?
  • Have they participated in any (or considered doing any)? What about their friends?
  • Would they consider participating in an online challenge if a friend asked them to?
  • What types of challenges would they do or not do, and why?

Help your child differentiate between harmless fun and online challenges that may be more risky than they are worth. You can even establish ground rules about Internet and social media use with your child. For instance, have them check with you first if they are thinking about participating in an online challenge.

Having regular conversations can help you foster an environment in which your kids feel comfortable talking to you about what’s happening online, which, in our hyper-connected world is more important now than ever before.

Learn more about parenting in a digital world by booking a free TELUS Wise workshop.