Parents 'spreading the fear' to their kids over Momo Challenge

Children frightened by stories about the so-called Momo Challenge — alleged viral videos of a creepy creature that instructs kids how to harm their family or themselves —can blame at least one group of individuals for freaking them out: their parents.

The challenge is believed to be a hoax but panic has spread nonetheless

The Momo Challenge is believed to be a hoax. YouTube said it had 'seen no recent evidence of videos promoting the Momo Challenge' circulating on its platform. (Twitter )

Children frightened by stories about the so-called Momo Challenge — purported viral videos of a creepy creature that instructs kids how to harm their family or themselves — can blame at least one group of individuals for freaking them out: their parents.

"Facebook parents are the ones who are spreading this like wildfire," said Paul Davis, a social media expert who specializes in online safety. 

Parental warnings about the Momo Challenge have swept Facebook and other social media in recent days. Parents have expressed concern about purported videos allegedly circulating online that feature a grinning creature with matted hair and bulging eyes encouraging children to hurt themselves or engage in other dangerous actions, such as turning on stoves without telling their parents. 

But the challenge is believed to be a hoax. It's unclear how many videos exist or to what extent they have circulated, among children or elsewhere. So far, there are no substantiated reports of children causing any kind of harm because of these videos. 

Davis said students in his safety presentations all provide different stories about what they've heard regarding the Momo Challenge, and it's all based on what their parents have told them.

"Ten-year-olds aren't on Facebook. It's moms and dads who are. So they're taking the information. They're viral marketing it."

'No recent evidence'

It's not the first time the so-called Momo Challenge has surfaced. Last year, there were reports of similar videos circulating through WhatsApp.

The origin of the Momo Challenge this time around is unclear. The Atlantic reported that earlier this week,  a Twitter user going by the name of Wanda Maximoff tweeted: "Warning! Please read, this is real. 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."

That message, according to The Atlantic, was retweeted thousands of times, along with the creepy face of Momo. News agencies picked up the story, as did Kim Kardashian, who posted a warning about the Momo Challenge on her Instagram account.

Reports of the challenge have prompted police agencies and schools to issue warnings. 

"We are receiving conflicting reports over what this 'challenge' truly entails or if it is even real," said John Malloy, director of education for the Toronto District School Board. 

"While we would never want to perpetuate a hoax, given the significant amount of media coverage and the number of questions we are receiving from staff, parents and students, we felt this was an opportunity to remind parents and children about online safety in today's digital world." 

In a statement, YouTube said after a review the company had "seen no recent evidence of videos promoting the Momo Challenge on YouTube."

"Despite press reports of this challenge surfacing, we haven't had any recent links flagged or shared with us from YouTube that violate our Community Guidelines," the social media giant said. 

'The kid is terrified'

Jesse Miller a B.C.-based social media expert who educates kids on internet safety, said what's particularly concerning are the number of kids in his school sessions who say they have only heard about Momo because their parents brought it to their attention.

"I've had a number of events where kids have said: 'I didn't know what this is until my mom just showed me this picture.' And the kid is terrified," Miller said.

Miller also laid some blame on the media, tweeting earlier this week: "Media & Parents, STOP MAKING #MomoChallenge A THING."

Media attention and fear spread about the so-called challenge may have also had the unintended consequence of creating some actual Momo videos. Davis said he discovered one Toronto media account that featured a Momo video that threatened to kill the viewer if they didn't listen to them.

"Kids are now ... saying 'Oh my goodness, it's real.' What they're seeing now isn't the origin of it, it's now someone saying 'I'm going to jump on this because kids are freaked out.'"

Meanwhile, Miller said the Momo story is overshadowing real incidents of people taking episodes of children's shows and splicing in hardcore pornography or self harm displays into YouTube content. 

"You have parents who opt to just put their child in front of a device and just let them watch that without the oversight of vetting the content," he said.

'Scared a lot of the parents'

Ian Landy, principal at Edgehill Elementary School in Powell River, B.C., who has blogged about the issue, said some parents were asking him if "this is something we need to jump on."

"No. As far as I can see and what I've heard," he said. 

He said students at his school who heard about the Momo Challenge did not overreact; some were already familiar with the challenge from last year's news reports.

"If anything, they were acting to it in a problem-solving way, largely because they remember how scared a lot of the parents were last time," he said.

"So the message coming out to our parents is very much: use this as an opportunity to talk about what you're doing on social media, what your kids are doing on social media."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Associated Press