Sunday 24 March 2019

Sarah Caden: 'Momo scare says more about parents than the kids'

Our children might have been scared by Momo, but it was we parents who talked it into a terror, writes Sarah Caden

Police have warned parents of the dangers of the Momo Challenge.
Police have warned parents of the dangers of the Momo Challenge.

Sarah Caden

Last week's Momo mania might have made you rethink your children's relationship with the internet and that is no harm.

What might be also be worth reassessing is your own relationship with the multiple WhatsApp groups, the social media, the endless talking and tweeting and twittering that was the true force behind the phenomenon.

Certainly, there was mischief at work among those who first disseminated the creepy Mother Bird melting-face image, and possibly some at work amid the stories of children self-harming and attempting suicide. Those weren't the people who gave the terror its momentum, however.

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Parents, whose intention is no doubt to protect their children, played a huge part in whipping it up in to something terrifying last week. If you had a school WhatsApp group, or, worse, multiple WhatsApp groups for multiple children, the notifications would have had your phone dancing by last Wednesday.

It was as if the zombie apocalypse was nigh, and that we parents were the last obstacle between evil and our offspring. If there was a virus at work and threatening our well-being, it was the virus of endless talk that has infected the adult world.

Our attention, it was shown, is pointed in the wrong direction. Our fixed attention on our own screens has left us vulnerable and while we really need to take a look at how our kids operate online, we need to check ourselves, first.

Certainly, many of the inter-parent chats last week started with a posted link to an article outlining the alleged Momo game, which it seemed was calculatedly targeting children and either scaring them witless or encouraging them to self-harm. By week's end, it was revealed as a viral hoax, with one scary image at its heart and then a lot of self-feeding scared talk around it.

The Momo image, as seen all over the world, is the work of Japanese artist Midori Hiyashi, who designed it as a typical Japanese horror-film character. The sculpture, entitled Mother Bird, appeared as part of a horror-art display in 2016 and its image has been posted online since, but only recently took off as a purported screen grab from a so-called game.

The game, apparently, set the player challenges. These were innocuous to start, but became more sinister, allegedly culminating in the challenge to take one's own life.

Talk of it was rife last weekend, but it took until Monday, when everyone went back to school, for it to really take off. A particularly alarming tweet, from a worried Twitter parent, said: "There is a thing called 'Momo' that's instructing kids to kill themselves. INFORM EVERYONE YOU CAN." It included the photo of Mother Bird, and boy did it do the rounds.

We didn't know this tweeter, or anything about them, but they had the power to push a button of fear. And we went with it.

The full-volume talk and terror around Momo escalated with reports that specific children had been harmed by it. One child apparently bashed her head against the ground after her mother asked her about Momo, and told her mother it was "a secret". It went beyond reports. It turned into friends of friends, a child in a nearby school, someone at soccer's sister.

Parents said the game had popped up on YouTube when their children were watching videos and lured them into nasty dares. YouTube said there was no evidence of this, but the parental terror spoke louder. And faster.

Images, reports of self-harm, warnings about how it was not only on YouTube but popping up in the safe-ground, quasi-babysitting service that is YouTube Kids. It was in Peppa, for God's sake.

One voice of sanity on my own various WhatsApp groups last week spoke up to say that, professionally, he couldn't see how Momo could infiltrate games or videos on the interactive level that was being suggested.

Then, he drew a comparison that resonated with anyone who can remember the pre-internet world. Momo sounded, he said, for all the world like the stories we used to hear at school about kids in the next town, who got their hands on a ouija board, got in touch with the spirit world, got possessed and ultimately ended up like the girl in The Exorcist.

Yes, that all seems very innocent now, but it was a very similar thing. It was a Chinese whisper, a chain letter, false news that touched a nerve.

He was talking about gossiping kids, however. What was mostly happening last week, was gossiping adults. It was a case of one adult hearing something half-assed about how the internet is out to get our children and then passing it on, online, in a split second to another adult and then on and on.

It progressed then to the point that we were being told to warn the children and then, of course, the fear spread among them. A lot of them were scared of Momo, particularly when we went so far as to show them the genuinely spooky image - albeit in the name of protecting them from it.

If your child couldn't sleep, it wasn't because Momo had come after them. It was because of all the graphic warnings.

By Friday, we knew that Momo was a hoax. Not necessarily one started deliberately or designed to blow up so spectacularly, but just another bit of nasty messing. The like of which happens all the time. There have been other suicide-game rumours, whispers about dare-games that veer into the sinister, viral task trends that put kids' lives in danger.

Mostly they are all talk. And talk has always existed, it's just that it can move fast and spread far and wide with unprecedented speed these days. A child in Sweden can reportedly self-harm because Momo says so and you can have it on your class WhatsApp by teatime. And it will make you want to protect your child; but will it make you take the online device away from them?

It's possible that the reason we parents fell so hard for Momo last week is because we know we need to do better in terms of how our children interact with the internet. We know we aren't strict enough. We know they have too much access. We know that we give them too much freedom to self-regulate. And even if we've set every restriction, it's not enough.

In a way, our endless terrified talking last week was a signalling that we do have our eyes on the ball, that we have the parental power to beat the online boogie man.

The horror that met reports that Momo was in YouTube Kids and Peppa said it all. These were supposed to be the safe zones, despite the clear warnings on YouTube Kids that while it's aimed at under-sixes, they can't moderate what's on it.

And while your child or mine watching slime-making or toy-unpacking on regular YouTube might seem to be pursuing something innocent, these things can veer into dark places, because there are people who want to take them there.

Even innocent videos can carry distressing comments on this platform and recently Disney, among others, was reported to have pulled advertising from YouTube, due to the nature of some comments.

Last week, possibly partly on the heels of how the Momo hype drew attention to it, YouTube has banned all comments on videos that feature children.

About time, from a parental point of view, but how many of us were really exercised and worried about the comments until last week? We should have been, but maybe it took a hoax threat to alert us to what are real threats.

And the real threats aren't just the comments. The real threat is the freedom we're giving our children online when their brains and judgment aren't fully formed. The real threat is to the degree of control we have over what's going on in our homes.

Perhaps it is that sense of being out of control that drove Momo. We are worried, but we're not sure how to alter our interactions or those of our children.

Bring back the old enemy, the telly, perhaps, and pass me the landline.

Sunday Independent

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