We all need to get better at spotting fake news. Panuwat Phimpha/Shutterstock
“An evil suicide game” was how one newspaper described the “Momo challenge”, a so-called game that supposedly involved children receiving a series of threatening and increasingly dangerous instructions from an anonymous contact on their smartphone. Such sensationalist reporting risked whipping up a frenzied panic, and it soon became apparent there was little evidence the game was real, with one children’s organisation saying it had received more enquiries from the press than from parents.
It’s easy to see why parents would be worried by reports of this purported phenomena, which are accompanied by a particularly creepy image of a doll reminiscent of something from a Japanese horror film. But the Momo challenge is simply the latest digital hoax, an urban legend able to develop and gain momentum because of the sharing of videos, articles and warnings online.
The intention of most people issuing these warnings is usually well-meaning. But the failure of people to identify the hoax, even by those who should have expert insight into whether children really are in danger, helps to create a problem where none really existed. And it’s likely to be worried parents that are harmed as a result rather than their more digital savvy children.
Reports of suicides linked to the Momo challenge have appeared around the world since July 2018, but without solid evidence that any of the deaths recorded were actually caused by the game. Attention on the story has grown, and recently took off in the British press after a mother posted a warning about it on her local Facebook group. She’d not seen any actual evidence of the game but had researched it after her son heard rumours about it at school and watched videos about it online.
It wasn’t just the media and parents that were sucked in, however. Children’s charities have criticised schools for warning parents about the challenge, and an MP raised the issue in parliament after being contacted by worried parents. Even the police were not immune from getting swept up in the panic, with several forces issuing dire warnings about Momo.
The irony is that there never was any proof of Momo. But now, partly as a result of the media attention, Momo has shifted from its supposed existence in threatening WhatsApp messages into a widely visible meme across YouTube and other online sources. And enough detail is available to equip those so inclined to use Momo as a method of cyberbullying.
Even as the media coverage shifted to articles condemning the Momo challenge as fake news and criticising the surrounding frenzy, reports still tended to include the image of the bulging-eyed female, perpetuating the clickbait cycle. This “visual extra” intensifies public awareness and ensures that the story registers in the collective imagination. In terms of the potential for harm, it has almost become irrelevant whether Momo was originally genuine or a hoax.
Heard this one before?
If the Momo challenge sounds familiar it’s because it’s very similar to the Blue Whale game that went viral in 2017, with headlines claiming that that had also led to the death of more than 130 teenagers. As with Momo, there was little verified information to prove these claims.
And yet the story was again able to draw in those who should have greeted it more sceptically. Much of the subsequent academic analysis of the Blue Whale game tended to uncritically accept the existence of the challenge and its purported link to suicides. There has been little attempt to understand how digital hoaxes are perpetuated and validated through the process of online warnings.
Even researchers who have analysed the presence of the Blue Whale game on social media have drawn inferences about it being “a deadly online craze” and “taking the world by storm” – claims that are not supported by the research. The most critical analysis of the Blue Whale game and how it proliferated in the news media came from journalists, not academics.
With all the online risks to children highlighted in the media, parents now have added responsibilities and expectations to protect their children than previous generations. It is difficult enough to navigate through the cacophony of drama to verify facts in an age of fake news. And this is made even harder when misinformation comes from supposedly expert and reputable sources.
But ultimately, digital hoaxes have as much if not more chance of causing emotional harm to parents or carers who may not have the same appreciation of internet culture as their children do. As the author Don Tapscott argues in his book Grown up Digital, the so-called “net generation” are often good at scrutinising information they encounter online, exposing hoaxes quickly, and making short work of false pretences.
Of course this applies more to older children and teenagers. But the pressure and desire to protect children from the horrors of the internet could inadvertently cause parents to engage with, or expose their children to, distressing content they would not have otherwise.
Digital hoaxes highlight the need for everyone to think more critically about online information. Often the hype can distract us from the real online issues affecting children and young people and the need for greater advice and support for suicide prevention in general.
About The Authors
Lisa Sugiura, Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Cybercrime, University of Portsmouth and Anne Kirby, Research Associate, University of Portsmouth
- Used Book in Good Condition
Brand: Brand: Trafford Publishing
Studio: Trafford Publishing
Label: Trafford Publishing
Publisher: Trafford Publishing
Manufacturer: Trafford Publishing
Binding: Kindle Edition
Format: Kindle eBook
Studio: 10-41 Publishing
Label: 10-41 Publishing
Publisher: 10-41 Publishing
Manufacturer: 10-41 Publishing
Gary Raney-Former Ada County, Idaho Sheriff
"As sophisticated as teenagers are online- constant vigil is imperative- and this book offers insightful and heart wrenching examples of how otherwise tech savvy kids can be emotionally, socially and physically manipulated -because at heart - they are still just kids."
First Lady of the State of Idaho, Lori Otter
Read about real cases, juvenile behaviors online and what parents need to know to make their kids online experience safer. Detective Ryan Pacheco (Ret.) is an Author, Public Speaker, Consultant and retired Detective from the Ada County Sheriff’s Office in Boise, Idaho. He worked in the Criminal Investigations, Persons Crimes Division and was a member of the Idaho Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force Assigned to the Idaho Attorney General's Office.
He formed the High Risk Juvenile Victims Unit at the Ada County Sheriff's Office and was President of the Idaho Crimes Against Children Conference in 2011 and 2012.
Detective Pacheco (Ret.) has received hundreds of hours of specialized training regarding the online sexual exploitation of children. This training included multiple investigative schools about online sexual exploitation of children, Internet Crimes Against Children investigative techniques, and peer-to-peer (P2P) software training. He has attended training specifically regarding investigating human trafficking,
Pacheco is an Author, Public Speaker, Consultant, Business Owner, and Administrator of RaisingNetSafeKids.com, an online website dedicated to providing parents with resources for internet safety for kids, which includes free blog postings, webinars, and online educational courses. He hosts free online webinars and sends out information via newsletter. More information can be found at RaisingNetSafeKids.com.
"Respond rather than react. Help is on the way. Read this book - follow the author’s directions. He may help you save your child’s life."
Dennis Mansfield, Author of "Beautiful Nate"