On Tuesday afternoon, a Twitter user going by the name of Wanda Maximoff whipped out her iPhone and posted a terrifying message to parents.
“Warning! Please read, this is real,” she tweeted. “There is a thing called ‘Momo’ that’s instructing kids to kill themselves,” the attached screenshot of a Facebook post reads. “INFORM EVERYONE YOU CAN.”
Maximoff’s plea has been retweeted more than 22,000 times, and the screenshot, featuring the creepy face of “Momo,” has spread like wildfire across the internet. Local news hopped on the story Wednesday, amplifying it to millions of terrified parents. Kim Kardashian even posted a warning about the so-called Momo challenge to her 129 million Instagram followers.
To any concerned parents reading this: Do not worry. The “Momo challenge” is a recurring viral hoax that has been perpetuated by local news stations and scared parents around the world. This entire cycle of shock, terror, and outrage about Momo even took place before, less than a year ago: Last summer, local news outlets across the country reported that the Momo challenge was spreading among teens via WhatsApp. Previously, rumors about the challenge spread throughout Latin America and Spanish-speaking countries.
The Momo challenge wasn’t real then, and it isn’t real now. YouTube confirmed that, contrary to press reports, it hasn’t seen any evidence of videos showing or promoting the “Momo challenge” on its platform. If the videos did exist, a spokesperson for YouTube said, they would be removed instantly for violating the platform’s policies. Additionally, there have been zero corroborated reports of any child ever taking his or her own life after participating in this phony challenge.
A lot of this relies on people believing their local school or police force knows what they’re talking about when it comes to the internet. Unfortunately most don’t have a clue and are sending letters to parents warning of non-existent issues like YouTube videos being “hacked”.— Jim Waterson (@jimwaterson) February 28, 2019
“Momo” itself is an innocuous sculpture created by the artist Keisuke Aisawa for the Japanese special-effects company Link Factory. The real title of the artwork is Mother Bird, and it was on display at Tokyo’s horror-art Vanilla Gallery back in 2016. After some Instagram photos of the exhibit were posted to the subreddit Creepy, it spread, and the “Momo challenge” urban legend was born.
For parents today, it can seem like the internet has endless ways of trying to kill your children or persuading your children to kill themselves. The so-called Blue Whale challenge supposedly asked kids to complete a series of tasks that culminated in suicide. The trend later turned out to be a hoax. Local news has warned about recent “crazes” like teens eating toxic Tide Pods (they weren’t), or potentially choking to death while snorting condoms for YouTube views (no deaths have been reported). Even the cinnamon challenge could supposedly kill you.
All of these challenges and trends follow the same formula: A local news station runs a piece overstating a dangerous teen trend. Concerned parents flock to social media to spread the word. Actual teenagers and anyone else who lives their life Extremely Online mock them for their naïveté. Brands and influencers hop on the trend, parodying it and exploiting it for their own gain. And trolls take advantage of those who believe it’s real, often by creating and posting content that seemingly confirms parents’ worst fears. SNL brilliantly parodied this cycle in 2010. Since then, it has only gotten worse.
These trends are “part of a moral panic, fueled by parents’ fears in wanting to know what their kids are up to,” Benjamin Radford, a folklorist and research fellow at the Committee for Skeptic Inquiry, told Rolling Stone. And spreading them can actually end up causing harm. “These stories being highly publicized, and starting a panic means vulnerable people get to know about it and that creates a risk,” the U.K.-based suicide-awareness charity Samaritans told The Guardian. Some kids can also end up hurting themselves by participating in the trend ironically.
Parents have always felt out of touch with younger generations, but smartphones have seemingly widened that gulf. Sixty percent of teens have created accounts for apps or social-media sites without their parents’ knowledge, according to a 2016 study by the National Cyber Security Alliance. And only 13 percent of teenagers believed their parents “understood the extent of their internet use.” That gap in understanding has allowed this very specific type of misinformation to flourish.
Worried parents share these hoax stories relentlessly on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. They beg the platforms themselves to do something to fix the mess. Many parents believe that spreading awareness about the latest dangerous craze will help kids stay safe, but they could very well be doing the opposite.
The problem is, these stories are only ever a distraction. They offer false reassurance and an easy fix to the wrong problem. If you can protect your child from the Momo challenge, the thinking goes, you can protect them from bad things on the internet. Unfortunately, maintaining kids’ safety online is a much more complicated and delicate task. “This whole ‘Momo is making kids commit suicide’ is a digital version of playing Beatles records backwards to hear Satanic messages,” says Ben Collins, a journalist who covers misinformation. “It does a real disservice to all the harmful stuff targeting children and teens on YouTube.”
What many parents miss is that the platforms themselves often perpetuate harm. Their automated moderation systems fail to flag inappropriate content. Their skewed content-recommendation algorithms promote extremist beliefs. They don’t protect kids against cyberbullying from peers, they milk kids under the age of 13 for money and engagement, and they promote truly gruesome content.
The internet is profoundly changing kids’ lives in ways that we have yet to understand, and it makes sense that parents want to keep their children safe. But “Momo” isn’t what they need protection from.