Spreading disinformation, hoaxes, and flat-out lies has proven to be the Achilles’ heel of the internet. It seems anyone can post anything to the internet. It’s “catch me if you can.” Once “out there” and “gone viral,” it cannot be time-stamped, recalled, or labelled for what it really is—a cyberbullying hoax.

Deleting content off the internet is a huge job and always lags behind from when a lie first surfaces. Deleting content must be done by the “people who own the pipes,” including YouTube, its parent Google, and Facebook.

The Momo Challenge (named after the user who posted the content), which first surfaced in July 2018 and resurfaced in February 2019, has been labelled a hoax but that doesn’t mean it is any less damaging to young children, tweens, and teens. It urges children to perform dangerous acts, self-harm, and even suicide.

By any measure, the Momo Challenge falls into the category of bullying and cyberbullying. Clearly, it targets children. How can we call it a “hoax” when a search gets you results in Google and YouTube? Momo may be a modern myth, but cyberbullying has very real and devastating consequences.

Cyberbullying is a danger of the virtual world. Cyberbullying is terrifying for parents.

Momo is a social media account on WhatsApp; the app is owned by Facebook. Allegedly the Momo image pops up randomly when children are playing popular online videos, such as YouTube Kids and Peppa Pig, and online games such as Fortnite and Minecraft.

The game asks children to add unknown people to their contact list, telling them to hurt themselves in increasing levels of severity or commit violent acts—the challenge—take photos, and share those photos on the internet. The game also uses cyberbullying tactics to show children equally disturbing images if they don’t comply.

When does cyberbullying turn into child exploitation or sex trafficking?

Momo successfully leverages children’s psychology: they are impressionable. It leverages their natural curiosity, love (or obsession) with video games, wanting to fit in with their peers, competitiveness, and the desire to win. A parent’s worst nightmare!

The mascot for the sinister Momo Challenge is a bizarre sculpture that is half-woman and half-bird created in 2016 by Japanese special effects artist Keisuke Aisawa for the company Link Factory and later displayed at Vanilla Gallery, a Tokyo art gallery that specializes in ghoulish art. Originally called “Mother Bird,” the 1-metre tall silicone sculpture has bulging eyes, stringy hair, a demonic grin, and naked breasts atop oversized chicken feet. It is loosely based on a creature from Japanese folklore about a woman who died in childbirth and emerges to haunt the area where she died. Mr. Aisawa, a parent of a small child himself, has since destroyed the artwork, feeling somehow responsible because his sculpture has been hijacked to cyberbully children.

Just this past weekend, Saturday Night Live poked fun at the Momo Challenge with a spoof of fictional chicken chain Bok Bok whose mascot is “Mother Bird.” Ha-ha! Or, is it?

Meanwhile, the Momo Challenge—“hoax” or not—continues to spread fear. The Momo Challenge has caught the attention of a Turkish deputy minister, government IT officials in the Philippines, and the police in Argentina among many others.

At the end of February 2019, Kim Kardashian sent a message out to her 130M Instagram followers, urging YouTube to delete the Momo cyberbullying segments.

Both Google and YouTube issued statements of concern, as posting such videos would be contrary to the terms of service and an obvious danger to children. They have also said that they could not find any such videos.

Equally puzzling is the fact that there have been very few reports of children actually hurting themselves. But here is one, of a 12-year-old girl on the autism spectrum who almost blew up her mother’s apartment.

The Momo Challenge was linked to a number of phone numbers in Japan and several countries in Latin America, reported the BBC via the Daily Mail. Some cybersecurity experts believe that the Momo Challenge is yet another malicious scheme to grab users’ personal information by cyberbullying.

What is irrefutable is the amount of negative publicity and anxiety in parents that the Momo Challenge has generated. In addition, it has prompted anti-cyberbullying responses from police, a response from the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and other school Boards.

“Quite frankly, we are receiving conflicting reports over what this ‘challenge’ truly entails or if it is even real,” John Malloy, director of education for the board, states in the TDSB letter to parents, according to The Toronto Sun.

What are concerned parents to do to prevent bullying and cyberbullying of their children? Here are some practical tips:

  1. Position computers in a room where you can see the screen. Do not position a computer screen to face a wall, for example. Know what content your children are accessing online.
  2. Do not give smartphones to very young children. Even Bill Gates didn’t give smartphones to his kids until they were 14.
  3. Tell your children what they can, and cannot, access online. One day, you won’t be there to supervise them.
  4. Ensure children understand the importance of not giving personal information to anyone they do not know.
  5. Tell children no one has the right to make them do anything they do not want to do.
  6. Use parental controls to keep children safe; How to set up parental controls on Google Play

More cybersecurity tips for children and teens at Cybertip.ca

At Jasmine Daya & Co., we advise victims that are considering a civil lawsuit against cyberbullies. To learn more about your options, call me at 416-967-9100 ext. 234 or contact us online to schedule a free consultation.