Today, my 10 year old daughter, who suffers from an anxiety disorder, had a panic attack at school and had to be picked up. I found out from her, after I got her home, that the thing that had triggered her was a classmate warning her about Momo. The classmate told her that Momo is on the internet making kids kill themselves. And that there are bad videos on YouTube and they can make you kill yourself too. And the classmate tried to show her a picture of Momo, but she was too afraid to look.
My daughter is no longer afraid of Momo, and I am not afraid of Momo hurting my daughter. I will tell you how I did that. But first let me tell you why Momo is a danger in the first place.
In recent weeks, we have all seen articles, frantic Facebook posts, and television coverage of the resurgence of “the Momo challenge”- a dangerous internet trend that allegedly encourages children to mischief, self-harm, and even suicide.
The internet is a dangerous place, and it is important to be aware of what is on it, and why, and how your children interact with it. However, the way we talk about it, and educate our children about it, and share news about it, directly influences the effectiveness of internet dangers like Momo.
Remember that whether or not you talk to your kids about Momo, they are talking to each other. And this is what they hear and see:
- They hear the legend. They hear this first and most frequently because it’s the spookiest, and therefore juiciest, news to spread. They hear that Momo is an evil spirit on the internet, and that if you message her she will give you instructions, and if you do not follow the instructions, she will come to your house and kill your family. And then Momo instructs you to do bad things, or to self-harm. This story is almost always punctuated with a hastily flashed image of the “Momo” profile picture on a cell phone or tablet. It is corroborated with news stories, headlines, or rumors about real kids who have killed themselves because of Momo.
- They hear that Momo has hidden dangerous videos on YouTube that make kids kill themselves. This often gets boiled down to the simpler and scarier “don’t watch YouTube Kids, there’s evil spirits on it that can kill you!”
- They see us. They see headlines and facebook posts and TV news spots. They see parents showing their six year olds pictures of the “Momo” face, asking “have you seen this?” then freaking out when the child answers “yes.” They see that their parents are scared, and society is scared.
- They hear warnings, from their parents and others. Don’t talk to anyone on the internet, they can hurt you! Don’t go on YouTube by yourself–or at all! In fact, don’t use the internet! It’s dangerous!
Put yourself in a child’s shoes. If the list above is all you know, what conclusion will you draw?
That there are demons, and dangers, and things you can’t protect yourself from, all over the internet, and you know it’s real because all the grown-ups are scared too.
Now put yourself in an internet predator’s shoes. You know exactly what children are afraid of. You know that if they’re on the internet, it’s not because they haven’t heard about this, it’s because they don’t think it’s going to happen to them. If you tell a child on the internet, “I am Momo, I can see you, I will come to your house and kill your family unless you do exactly as I say,” and you pair it with the now-familiar Momo profile picture, THEY WILL DO WHATEVER YOU WANT. They’ll agree not to tell anyone they’re talking to you. They will give up personal information. They will send you pictures.
They are primed.
Because we are priming them.
There is danger on the internet. There are predators who would prey upon the innocence our children. There is reason to be wary. But there are also dangers in shopping malls, and airports, and playgrounds and after-school clubs and public places and private parties and anywhere there are people. This danger is no different from any of those. It’s just newer, and bigger, and we understand it less.
And that’s the key.
The internet is the world’s largest public place. And nearly as unavoidable. You can place limits, and take away devices, and install filter aps. But your first and most powerful line of defense is COMPREHENSION.
Whenever the news starts reporting a new and dangerous internet trend or YouTube challenge or child-targeting scam, don’t just “share.”
Investigate. Fact-check. Find out exactly how the scam works. Find out exactly who is doing it, and how, and why, and to what end. Read articles from multiple sources. Draw your own conclusions.
Once you understand the scam, explain it to your children. All of it. In clear, simple, specific detail.
A SCAMMER CANNOT HURT YOU IF YOU KNOW YOU’RE BEING SCAMMED.
Don’t tell your children that the internet is a danger they cannot protect against, because it isn’t. Tell your children that people are a danger, and that dangerous people might try to use the internet to trick you. But you can stop them.
You are not powerless. There are no demons, no ghosts, and no black magic on your devices. There is bad information and good information. Bad people and good people. Bad videos and good videos.
You can tell the difference. You have the power to protect yourself.
Here is exactly what I told my daughter:
- Momo is not a demon, a monster, or a ghost. It is an idea that people use to trick each other–people, not demons, not magic–and it’s been around for a really long time. And people can’t trick you if you understand the trick.
- The picture called “Momo” is not of a person. I am going to show you the whole, uncropped picture. Before I show you, I want to warn you that it is scary looking. But it is just a statue. It was never alive. It is a sculpture called “mother bird” made by a Japanese artist. The artist has nothing to do with Momo and did not make the sculpture to be used this way. Someone just saw it on the internet, thought it was creepy (because it is), and decided to use it for this story. This is a picture of the whole statue.
- There are two separate issues people are talking about. One is the Momo challenge, where kids dare each other to message “Momo” on snapchat or another messaging ap, and Momo threatens them and tells them to do bad things. Remember that every account is owned by a person. A person, not a ghost or an evil spirit or a demon. Anyone can make an account and call it Momo. Anyone can get this picture. But they aren’t any different from any other person on the internet, and everything you already know about internet safety can protect you from Momo too.
- No one, whether they call themselves Momo or Joe or Bozo the Clown, can know who you are or how old you are or where you live or where you go to school IF YOU DON’T CONNECT WITH THEM. Momo is just a bunch of different people on the internet. None of them are magical or mysterious or supernatural. So don’t message “Momo” or anyone else you don’t know, because you already know not to message with strangers. Don’t give out personal information. And don’t ever be afraid to tell a grown-up if something or someone scares you. Even if they threaten you. ESPECIALLY if they threaten you. Remember that the threats are empty. A person on the internet can only see what you show them. They can only hear what you tell them. They can only take what you give them. That’s why they try to trick you, instead of just showing up and taking what they want. They CAN’T just show up. They can’t hurt you. You have the power.
- The other thing people are talking about is inappropriate content on YouTube. Honey, it’s YouTube. There are sick people out there, and they post sick things. Sometimes they hide inappropriate things in videos for kids. This has been happening as long as there has been a YouTube. YouTube Kids has filters and safeguards and works really hard to catch the bad videos, but that doesn’t mean they catch them all. It’s safer to watch videos in other places. But if you DO watch YouTube, YOU STILL HAVE THE POWER.
- Remember that videos can’t make you do bad things, and they can’t do bad things to you. You are smart. If you see something you don’t think you’re supposed to be watching, stop watching it. Tell a grown-up. Report it to YouTube. If someone on YouTube tells you to do something you know is wrong, don’t do it. Stop watching. Tell a grown-up. Report it to YouTube. If someone on YouTube says they can hurt you, don’t believe them. Remember that a video can’t hurt you or make you hurt yourself. A video can’t make choices for you. If a video scares you, you can turn it off. There is nothing magical on YouTube. YouTube cannot see you and it cannot touch you, even if someone in a video says they can. It’s a trick. Don’t fall for it. You have the power.
So, to my fellow parents…at the end of the day, it’s your choice how much you allow your children to access the internet, and how much you police their activity, what aps you allow them use, and what videos you let them watch. That is for every parent to decide for themselves.
But someday, it will be THEIR choice. Someday, they’ll have to navigate the world on their own. And if all they know is that it’s scary, the world will use their fear against them.
Dangerous is not the same as scary.
Teach your kids to be cautious, not afraid. Informed, not ignorant. Questioning, not accepting. Savvy and unscammable. Ready.
You have the power.