How to help your family survive the next Internet hoax

April 9, 2019 | Posted in: Elementary, Middle Years

“Can you kill Momo?”

Those were probably not the first words a rookie school resource officer in Upstate New York expected to hear the first time he visited a classroom of third graders in late February. But it’s 2019, and the “Momo Challenge” had just gone viral.

At the time of the encounter, that particular SRO had not heard of the Momo Challenge. But the SRO said he did take stock of the comments and would do some research.

Details of what the Momo Challenge actually is are murky. It was reported by some media outlets and repeated on social media that children and adolescents were being enticed by an Internet user named Momo to perform a series of dangerous tasks, including violent attacks and self-harm.

Imagery of a creepy doll are often distributed with posts referencing the “Momo Challenge.” The images were later found to have originated from a Japanese special effects company that has no connection to the challenge, which was first circulated last summer.

A few days later, in a different class of third graders in a different upstate New York school, an SRO and an elementary guidance counselor gave a lesson in Internet safety prompted by the alleged challenge. Not a word in that class was mentioned about Momo.

SRO John Lowe at Unadilla Valley CSD said later that month that that he has so far presented to more than 100 students in six classes with more scheduled later this spring.

“Out of all of these students, I only had three who mentioned Momo,” Lowe said recounting his classroom experiences in the weeks since the Momo Challenge emerged anew.

While experiences may vary from school to school; class to class; and even student to student, it became clear fairly quickly that the Momo Challenge was not quite the danger it was represented by many to be. It also turns out, the Momo Challenge may have gone viral not because children were passing around Momo memes and videos to each other, but because parents on social media were reacting to the perceived danger.

Lowe said that based on his experience interacting with young students, he agrees with that assessment and said that the parental fear, in some cases, may have trickled down to younger students simply when parents asked their children about it.

Those conversations may have gone like this:

“Have you heard about Momo?”

“Who’s Momo?”

“Well, it’s this thing on YouTube that makes kids do really bad things…are you sure you haven’t heard about Momo?”

“I have now!”

While the “Momo Challenge” and others like it may be hoaxes, it doesn’t make them less scary, especially for younger children. There are also other very real concerns related to the Internet and social media of which we all, as a community, need to be aware.

Here are some tips for parents to be better prepared for the next Momo.

Be proactive

Let’s face it — whether it’s Momo or something equally horrifying, it’s only a matter of time before your children come across something inappropriate online. (Or in real life!) Talking to them early and often about your expectations not only has the benefit of getting everyone on the same page — it can also help assuage the worries of younger kids who may have outsized fears about what lurks online. Pediatric psychologist Dr. Meghan Walls told that “Pre-emptively addressing something with your kid is always better.”

Empower your children

Much of the fear around Momo came from the idea that this character supposedly had the power to convince or compel children to do dangerous things. As upsetting as that idea is to parents, it’s even more disturbing to young children, who may mistakenly believe something like Momo could truly hold this sort of power over them. Remind your children that they are the ones with the power. They can end a chat, shut down an app, or turn off their device any time they feel uncomfortable.

“The image that often comes to mind when we think of ‘kids and the internet’ is this forest full of Big Bad Wolves, with kids as unsuspecting little Red Riding Hoods,” youth digital activist and author Adora Svitak told UNICEF. “But this vision is reductive, and it underestimates how savvy young people can be when given the chance.”

Stick to the facts

While many adults were relieved to find out that Momo was nothing more than a hoax, the damage it did to many children was real in terms of the fear and worry that they experienced just from hearing about it. The sad truth is that adults played a very major role in spreading that fear and worry — in many cases, without having a lot of facts to back it up. One internet expert told The Guardian that “even though it’s done with the best intentions, publicizing this issue has only piqued curiosity among young people. … It’s a myth that is perpetuated into being some kind of reality.” Any online scare or dare is a good opportunity to talk to children about critical thinking and using good judgment.

Stay involved

It’s not realistic to expect any parent to be an expert in every new app, game or YouTube channel that comes along. So how are parents supposed to stay on top of everything? Common Sense Media suggests that parents adopt the mindset of being a “media mentor” — having regular conversations with your child about the media and technology; playing games and watching videos with your children; and supporting your child’s interests.

Jake Palmateer is a public information specialist for Capital Region BOCES. He is a father of two. Their adventures include camping, hiking, metal detecting, painting, stargazing, reading, fishing, soccer, mowing the lawn and baking cupcakes.

Emily Popek is a public information specialist for Capital Region BOCES. She lives in Otsego County with her husband and their daughter.

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