Parents Corner: Looking Back At The Frenzy Of The Momo Challenge
My son was watching YouTube Kids when I got the first text message about the “Momo Challenge,” which is apparently the latest rejuvenation of a dirty, digital dare intended to convince children to hurt themselves or commit suicide.
I’d never heard of Momo before, but my kids are young and just now getting into YouTube and other digital offerings. The possibility of Momo appearing inside of an episode of, say — Peppa Pig — was a shock to my six-years-new-to-parenting ears. Most everyone I saw at school pickup, or on Facebook or at Scouts, had a neighbor or best friend who had interacted with the eerie smile and bug eyes of a Japanese sculpture named “Mother Bird” that has somehow become the “face” of this latest digital scare- or ghost story, depending upon whom you want to believe.
In recent days, Momo has made headlines around the world, even prompting some police departments to send alerts. However, through all of this, YouTube tells me it has no evidence of this challenge being spread specifically on YouTube Kids and further, the streaming giant tells me the content has not been found on YouTube kids. In fact, a YouTube spokesperson encouraged me to submit a screenshot, a link or a video of a video where Momo — and not a news story or a warning to stay away from Momo — was found on the kids version of its products so that it could investigate. And, in a statement sent to me, the digital giant says this:
Contrary to press reports, we’ve not received any recent evidence of videos showing or promoting the Momo challenge on YouTube. Content of this kind would be in violation of our policies and removed immediately.
Digging a little deeper, and watching a few more parent videos on the topic, I found that many of the described instances of kids who encounter this googly-eyed monster are playing Minecraft, or watching videos related to Roblox or are on WhatsApp. Those kids are also older than mine. (My kids are still mostly watching Disney Jr. and Baby First TV.) Meanwhile, CBS News says the challenge stems from WhatsApp — not YouTube.
My six-year-old had not heard the words Momo; I asked him but I did not show him the image as I don’t want him exposed to such art just yet. However, my friends with same-age kids who play more digital games than mine have said their kids had heard of Momo — either in school from other kids or via text message.
This made me wonder about kids who are six who are receiving text messages, but that’s another column for another day. In any event, the allegation that YouTube Kids is somehow pushing this or being hacked is strongly refuted by YouTube corporate. Now. Can things slip through the cracks? Possibly, but YouTube tells me that people have sent in screenshots of thumbnails with the Momo character in it, but after researching, they found the content was discussing, documenting or reporting on the challenge and the character.
Also, there’s this from a professor at Plymouth University who also talked to a Forbes.com contributorabout Momo:
Things like Momo become social media storms because folk are so keen to share. It’s a nasty looking image which looks scary, so, the gut feeling would be this would scare kids. But check the sources and the evidence trail soon runs dry. It’s viral content at the end of the day, propagating just adds fuel to the fire, and creates unfounded hysteria. Don’t believe everything you read online.
So now what’s a parent to do? I spoke with Jill Murphy, vice president and editor in chief of Common Sense Media, about this situation to see what she thought. Common Sense, as you might know, is the kid-centric organization that rates TV shows, movies and video games and details the specifics of each piece of content so a parent can decide whether the content is appropriate for their child.
Murphy said this Momo challenge is similar to the Tide Pod Challenge and other digitally-spread “challenges” that seek to teach kids to hurt themselves. She also told me about “bot farms” that create YouTube content and explained how parents should know that some of these videos are not created by humans but by machines. So, parents might want to research the country and city of origin of the videos the kids watch.
As for Momo, she says this:
“I don’t know who is creating it, but it’s still a legit threat. It still feels threatening as a parent to have your kid come across something that encourages them to harm themselves — especially within content that you thought was created for children, like a Peppa Pig.”
Ah. That story. A pediatrician reportedly found an instructional suicide video inside of a Peppa Pigepisode. As the story goes, she then worked with YouTube (or tussled with YouTube, depending on your point of view) to get said video removed. That particular story spread like wildfire on Facebook, and I contacted Peppa’s US distributor for comment, but they did not respond. Still, that story doesn’t appear to be Momo.
Murphy reminded me that YouTube and YouTube Kids added around 10,000 staff to personally monitor content in an effort to remove obscene and inappropriate videos. That’s great. But it seems the additional safety issue, as she sees it, is that the computer algorithm that brings new videos to children can also lead them down a rabbit hole of unintended views. I’ve seen it myself. My son was watching Alphablocks as we waited at the dentist office, and the next suggested video was something not appropriate for his young mind.
We apparently are part of the crew of people who sent more than 5.2 billion views to YouTube Kids in one month alone — October — in 2018. I don’t use the service as a digital babysitter, but I like to think I could complete chores or pay a few bills without worrying about a Momo intruding into my son’s space.
Murphy says the best way to protect the progeny on YouTube Kids is to sign in to your account and subscribe to specific channels. With a little bit of work, you can even remove the search bar.
I initially thought I’d remove YouTube Kids from my son’s device. Then I thought, “well, since he hasn’t seen this Momo, maybe I’ll leave it alone and let him enjoy on occasion.” But after talking to Murphy I now have some other options.
“Is it all or nothing?” she says. “At Common Sense Media we are all about balance and finding the good stuff. There’s plenty of amazing stuff on YouTube and it can be an incredible platform… But parents have to be involved in one way or another. We’re all guilty of unleashing the beast and then figuring out later on that a platform doesn’t have our kids best interest at heart.”
She also recommends services like Kidoodle.tv and Disney Jr. Appisodes. As for me, I’m a fan of an extremely well-curated list of cartoons on Netflix for kids. And there’s always the option of turning off the screens and going outside to play. That works too.