A creepy doll-like figure is at the center of a disturbing new twist to viral challenges reportedly responsible for sending graphic violent images and daring children to inflict self-harm and intentionally kill themselves. Fair warning: This article contains some disturbing content and may be distressing to children.
The “Momo Challenge” joins the ranks of recent viral challenges hyped by the media. The cyberbullying attempt targets young children watching seemingly innocent videos on YouTube Kids and other platforms. Embedded in these videos posted by unknown hackers are “surprise eggs” featuring a wide-mouthed figurine with hauntingly large eyes taunting in a child-like voice, “Momo, Momo, Momo is going to kill us.” In videos seen by IFLScience, they prompt viewers to call or text a number displayed on the screen. Various reports allege that contact with this number would be followed by dares to inflict self-harm or take one’s life. According to the UK’s National Online Safety (NOS) organization, the Momo Challenge has been around for some time and is once again resurfacing with links to apps like Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, and YouTube Kids.
“In all the hysteria, multiple claims of ‘hacked’ Peppa Pig videos have run rampant, but in all cases, the only thing that exists are warnings about said videos, rather than the videos themselves. This itself is some sort of collective meme recollection from 2017, where pranksters spliced genuine footage of children's cartoons with horrible inserts – entirely unrelated to Momo. It seems people are tying it up into older unrelated YouTube antics. It is doubtful that any hacking of YouTube videos to insert this redundant meme into them is taking place and based on what I've seen so far anyone under the age of 15 has rolled their eyes at Momo's return from its Creepypasta grave,” Chris Boyd, senior threat researcher at Malwarebytes, told IFLScience.
It Is Just An Urban Legend
Just like Creepypasta, Momo is made to look like an urban legend or viral challenge and uses the media to say as much, perpetuating its supposed legitimacy. Concerns about child safety have prompted thousands of users to share warnings, but danger lies in repeating rumors without solid evidence.
“These stories being highly publicized and starting a panic means vulnerable people get to know about it and that creates a risk,” a spokesperson with Samaritans told The Guardian. Others continue that media outlets should read their guidelines on reporting suicide.
Momo May Be A Front For Hacking
Officials say it's more than just about scaring kids – the “sinister” suicide game covers up hackers trying to steal information, reports the BBC in a recent article.
“This extremely disturbing challenge conceals itself within other harmless-looking games or videos played by children and when downloaded, it asks the user to communicate with 'Momo' via popular messaging applications such as WhatsApp. It is at this point that children are threatened that they will be cursed or their family will be hurt if they do not self-harm," said Police Service of Northern Ireland in a statement. Parents should take care to educate their children about online safety, particularly discouraging them from contacting strangers or sharing personal information.
YouTube Says They Have Seen No Evidence Of Momo
An average of 300 hours of content is uploaded to YouTube every minute, which presents a challenge for moderators to catch all inappropriate content. When a viewer sees a Momo-related video, an investigation conducted by NOS found that “countless other Momo themed videos and other scary content” not appropriate for children is cued in the platforms Up Next feature.
"We want to clear something up regarding the Momo Challenge: We’ve seen no recent evidence of videos promoting the Momo Challenge on YouTube. Videos encouraging harmful and dangerous challenges are against our policies," said YouTube in a Tweet.
No Deaths Have Been Linked To The Momo Challenge
Momo made its first appearance in the news cycle last year after reports of a 12-year-old girl had reportedly killed herself after having been motivated by the viral challenge. Similarly, Indian media reported two deaths by suicide of people allegedly participating in the challenge. However, official documentation is lacking in both instances, and UK-based digital safety organization Parent Zone writes that there is little evidence of any deaths directly tied to Momo.
Most Importantly, Do Your Research And Talk With Your Children
The Ohio Department of Education says the Momo Challenge can be a teachable moment for parents to have positive conversations with their children and to monitor their online usage.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death among youth and young adults age 10 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. NOS advises parents to remind their children that Momo is not real (after all, the figurine was just a Japanese prop named “Mother Bird” displayed in an art exhibit three years ago) and that it cannot hurt them or control their behavior. Parents can also set up parental controls, such as turning off YouTube’s suggested auto-play feature and reporting harmful content that goes against YouTube's Community Guidelines.