Adolescents through the ages have gotten a thrill out of two things: a good scare and a good dare. Before the internet, they tried to conjure the image of Bloody Mary by repeating her name three times in front of a mirror. In the digital age, smartphones are the conduit for conjuring malevolent beings—and once summoned, they can show their faces for real, intending to subject their victims to more than just a scare.
One such sadistic being is Momo, whom you may have heard about in the news recently. Momo appears as a grotesquely distorted woman with bulging eyes, a toothless gash of a mouth, and stringy black hair. The character is being used as the face and instigator of a viral challenge that may be linked to the suicide of a 12-year-old Argentinian girl. Dared (or personally compelled) to message Momo on the free messenger WhatsApp, participants receive a series of escalating frights and “challenges,” along with threats if Momo’s orders aren’t followed.
Among other things, Momo threatens to leak the user’s personal information if the user refuses to provide proof they’ve harmed themselves in a number of ways.
The Momo challenge is not the first “game” of this type. The Blue Whale challenge gave players tasks to complete, culminating in suicide. For obvious reasons, these sorts of games don’t exist openly, but tech-savvy teens can find them, and it’s also believed that certain teens are targeted and goaded to play.
Not all of the online challenges involving teens are sinister, but they can still end badly. Take, for example, the cinnamon and Tide Pod challenges, which provided attention seekers with an easy albeit asinine way to get their 15 minutes of fame.
What Parents Should Know About Social Media Challenges
So what can parents do to prevent kids from succumbing to dumb or deadly challenges? First, don’t panic. Media reports of such challenges are almost always exaggerated. Initial reports that the Blue Whale challenge caused rampant suicides in Russia turned out to be false. Likewise, the Washington Post found that the Tide Pod Challenge, along with the condom-snorting challenge that ostensibly came in its wake, was too rare to be considered a thing, let alone a fad. So treat each news report not as a reason to panic but as an opportunity to talk to your kid about online safety.
Adolescents Are Wired to Take Risks
OK, so your kid probably isn’t foolish enough to snort a Trojan. But understand that adolescents by nature are very prone to risk-taking. Seeking out novel experiences helps their brains learn and develop, but at the same time, their prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain responsible for rational decision making and impulse control—is not fully developed and won’t be until their mid-20s. Adolescence also brings a surge of hormones that trigger reward-seeking behaviors, and the instant feedback social media provides makes it hard for teens to resist taking a dare in exchange for likes and shares.
They Need Guidelines and Guardrails
For these reasons, kids’ online activity is subject to supervision. Establish a written code of conduct for social media use and online activities. An age-appropriate degree of parental oversight is part of the agreement and may involve installing parental controls and strict privacy settings. Increased use of devices late at night can be cause for concern; some experts recommend kids not have their phones in their rooms after bedtime. Teach children not to overshare on social media. It gives predators information to lure them in and could also come back to haunt them down the line—for instance, when they are job seeking. So kids won’t hesitate to come to you whenever something happens online that makes them uncomfortable, assure them you won’t take their devices away for reporting it.
On a final note, it should be pointed out that Momo of course isn’t real. The image of Momo is actually a sculpture by a special effects company, and the people behind the challenge are just anonymous bullies. But that doesn’t mean the Momo challenge doesn’t pose a risk to troubled teens. Researchers in the Ukraine found that teens who felt emotionally distant from friends and family were more likely to take up the Blue Whale challenge. Be on the lookout for signs of withdrawal and intervene if you think your child is troubled or the target of bullying at school or online.