Momo – described as a WhatsApp “suicide challenge” – purportedly features an avatar of a woman with dark hair, pale skin and oversized eyes, who sends young people images and instructions on how to harm themselves and others. But after a series of warnings about the game spread across UK social media this week fact-checkers and charities declared Momo a hoax.
Jill Murphy, vice president and editor-in-chief of Common Sense Media, tells the Momo Challenge preys on parents’ (often justified) fears about how social media platforms regulate content.
“So this has been around for a while. And the reason that it’s probably getting the kind of scrutiny and attention that it’s getting is because of its appearance in younger kids’ content,” she says. “And because of that, and because of the accessibility, coupled with the frustration for parents, I think it’s just a fever pitch of, ‘Here’s one more thing that YouTube is exposing kids to and not taking any accountability around.'”
Concern around the Momo Challenge may have less to do with the challenge itself and more about the overwhelming apprehension parents feel when staring down the barrel of millions of unregulated YouTube videos and confusing, ever-changing social media apps. So the solution, according to both Murphy and Mikkelson, is clear: Know what your kids are watching, and how they’re watching it.
“We encourage everyone to dissect the messages they’re getting and not be too alarmist,” says Murphy. “But since it calls to mind and brings to the surface the challenges of the YouTube platform for parents — not knowing whether or not they can trust the content — I think that’s what’s coming up the most.”
Commenting on the numerous rumours of suicide related to the Momo Challenge, web security experts and people studying modern myths have stated that the phenomenon is likely a case of moral panic: a sensationalised hoax fueled by unverified media reports. Benjamin Radford says “the Blue Whale Game and the Momo Challenge have all the hallmarks of a classic moral panic”, “fueled by parents’ fears in wanting to know what their kids are up to. There’s an inherent fear in what young people are doing with technology.” By September 2018, most phone numbers associated with “Momo” were out of service.