Saturday 19 October 2019

Kathy Donaghy: 'We should use Momo anger to scare the Government into action on social media'

Scare story: The media hysteria surrounding the Momo hoax could be putting vulnerable people at risk by encouraging them to think of self-harm
Scare story: The media hysteria surrounding the Momo hoax could be putting vulnerable people at risk by encouraging them to think of self-harm

Kathy Donaghy

The Momo hoax has been exposed but the fear and anxieties which were exploited to make it credible are real.

In my own family, a worried voice asked: "Mum, what's Momo?" My seven-year-old son asked me this as we were driving home from an after-school activity the other day. I'd been listening to a radio discussion about the latest internet phenomenon which has caused widespread panic for parents.

The 'game', which involves a grotesque looking character called Momo, was reportedly lurking behind innocent looking games and apps, and popping up uninvited to challenge children to self-harm. Some reports had even suggested it could be linked to a suicide in Argentina. Parents, white with fear, went online in their droves sharing Momo horror stories and online safety advice.

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It has emerged there is no evidence that the Momo challenge has initially caused any harm itself, and the media hysteria surrounding it could be putting vulnerable people at risk by encouraging them to think of self-harm.

So is the viral scare story of the year nothing more than a 'moral panic' spread by adults? Are we as parents guilty of perpetuating a fear and passing this on to our children?

According to CyberSafe Ireland, the key thing is for parents to keep talking to their kids; not just about the negative stuff but about all of the things in the online world.

The golden rules of making sure kids are in a family space when they're online so you can keep an eye on what they're looking at - especially when they're young - apply.

The organisation makes the point that children should be encouraged to come to their parents if they've seen anything at all that upsets them and that you, as a parent, will promise to try to help solve any problem, not just threaten to take away the device.

My heart sank with the knowledge that the question my youngest child asked would prompt a discussion about what Momo meant. I was also enraged that some sick game doing the rounds was going to mean having a conversation about how there are people out there who wish to harm kids. Whether Momo is 'fake news' or not is not the full picture because we know for a fact that cyberbullying exists on the internet.

Keeping your kids safe online means these kind of conversations are necessary.

Yes, we need to keep talking to our kids about being smart online, but why are parents being left to paddle their own canoes alone? No parent - even the one with all the controls on kids' devices who keeps strict rules about having the device in a family space - can be there to see what their child is looking at online 24/7.

The country's leading authority in this area, cyber- psychologist Dr Mary Aiken, is firmly of the view that the Government has dragged its heels in relation to holding social media companies to account when it comes to harm.

Dr Aiken is also angry that parents all over the country are having to have conversations with their children that inevitably lead to a loss of innocence because of this lack of regulation.

Momo is the latest in a line of creepy creations - there will no doubt be more - to scare parents and kids alike. What's different this time is that the character with bulging eyes and grotesque features gives fear a face. And parents don't know who is behind the face.

Dr Aiken points out that parents need to be awake to the fact that the online world exposes children to the worst humanity has to offer.

She is the architect of the Children's Digital Protection Bill 2018 currently going through the third stage of the Seanad which aims to hold companies behind social media platforms "legally accountable and responsible for the distribution of harmful material to minors".

Instead of wringing our hands about phenomena like Momo, perhaps parents should see this latest iteration as a call to arms to get our legislators to get tougher on harmful content online and stop dragging their feet.

Irish Independent

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