Me: “Have you heard about the Momo challenge?”
Me: “Sit down. Let’s have a chat…”
My kids (ages 11, 9 and 6) have been asking for their own iPads, cell phones, computers, gaming devices, T.V.s etc. for years. We have one television and one family computer, both of which are located in our shared family space, the living room. My kids share a Nintendo switch, WiiU and a cell phone that acts as a home line. We are a bit on the conservative side with what they are allowed to watch, listen to and play online, but not as extreme as some (we do allow Fortnite in moderation). Why are we so frugal with what devices we allow and what they have access to in the home?
- I want my kids to see my face more than they see a screen.
- They have not had enough real-world experiences to safely navigate the Internet unsupervised.
The Internet is scary, y’all. If you have been on social media this week, you may be having nightmares about a freaky, bug-eyed, distorted demon face that tells kids to hurt themselves and others through familiar kid-friendly zones such as YouTube. It’s half of my newsfeed right now – and even I shared some of these articles that I felt were raising some good issues. Some of the articles shared are written to induce fear and anxiety in us parents (yup. It’s working). And others are calling those articles spam or hoaxes (phew. Maybe I don’t have to ban the Internet after all).
Before I go any further, here’s what you need to know:
- The Momo Challenge appears to be a modern day version of a chain letter making threats if you don’t follow through with whatever is being asked. But instead of it being a letter, it’s used through both direct messaging apps and videos.
- The scary face floating around the Internet is the picture of a sculpture designed by a special-effects company in Japan that is not officially linked to the challenge.
- Websites like Wikipedia and Snopes have declared it a hoax whereas news sources such as the Today Show and CBS News have interviewed people whose kids have been affected by the challenge.
From first and second-hand experience, I don’t completely believe it’s a hoax. I haven’t seen “Momo,” per se, but there are definitely some sketchy things online that I’d rather stay away from. We learned of the dangers of YouTube Kids years ago when my daughter was innocently watching Elsa belt out “Let It Go” and suddenly she turned into fiery, demon Elsa with a deep baritone voice. A few searches later and I found a few Peppa Pig and Mickey Mouse videos that were similar. We told my son that he had to stop playing Roblox unsupervised after another anonymous player was behaving inappropriately in the same “room” that my son was playing in. And I took the news about the Momo Challenge seriously when another mom talked about her daughter having trouble sleeping after a scary character started chatting with her on TikTok when she was at a friend’s house.
But it’s not just the terrifying face or change in a character’s tone that scares me. It’s the accessibility that strangers have to my children. They have the capability to take advantage of familiarity and relatability through anonymous conversations. These strangers have the power to gain the trust of a vulnerable person by saying the right things to our kids that make them feel known and understood, creating a false sense of security in their limited understanding of safe relationships. Our kids feel like they know these characters / personas and that these characters / personas know them. Our kids may not be mature enough to understand that, in the case of the Momo Challenge, these characters that are threatening them are not real, do not know who they are, where they live, who their family is and cannot actually cause physical harm to them.
Whether or not the character “Momo” is real, the challenge is cyber-bullying by a different name. And with the speed in which things are changing these days, the threat will look different a few days, weeks and months from now.
I do not think that banning YouTube Kids or cutting off all Internet access is the way to go. Our kids need to learn how to safely navigate the Internet because it will be a huge part of their future.
So knowing that we cannot completely keep our kids off the Internet, what can we do to keep our kids safe?
- We must educate them against the dangers of the Internet and teach them safe practices such as never giving out personal information and stranger danger.
- We need to set clear expectations or boundaries such as limiting time and access, using parental controls, only using the Internet in a shared living space with the volume loud enough for you to hear, etc.
- We need to know what our kids are seeing online. Watch with them, engage with them while they are playing or watching.
- Continue to work on and grow an open relationship with your kids as they grow older so they know to tell you right away when something they see is not ok.
- Research safe websites, games and YouTube channels such as the Discovery Channel or PBS Kids. Check out websites like Geeks Under Grace and Common Sense Media for ratings and reviews.
- Be open and share what you have learned about things such as the Momo challenge and any other Internet threats whether real or not.
- Pour into them truths about healthy personal relationships versus the realities and false securities in online relationships with strangers.
All of these can be summed up to having ongoing, crucial conversations with our kids regarding what they see online and how they can stay safe. I showed my kids a few articles about the Momo challenge and my pre-teen said, “Ah. Now I see why you don’t want me to have a phone. Ok, I’ll stop asking.” My 9-year-old said, “If that’s on YouTube, not even my Minecraft videos are worth watching if it’s possible that that face might pop up.” (Knowing how sensitive my 6-year-old is to scary things, we did not show the picture to her, but gave her an age-appropriate run-down.)
After having these conversations with my kids, they understood why I put boundaries on them. They know why I don’t allow some things and why I watch them closely. Conversations keep them from pushing back against my boundaries because there is a clear reason why they are in place. That clarity makes them realize that I’m not being a mean mom, but it’s because I love them that I set these rules. I know many people do not want to open their kids’ minds up to this type of evil in the world. However, I’d much rather over share to give my kids the ability to recognize a threat than assume that I’m protecting them by not exposing them to these terrors.