Warning: This post contains disturbing images and addresses suicide.
Navigating the internet is a terribly precarious thing. We're constantly fielding a barrage of "fake news," left to suss out truthful details on our own. And when it comes to making decisions for our children about screen time, there is no shortage of information to analyze and sort through.
By now, you've likely heard about the "Momo Challenge," a horrifying creature (adapted from a Japanese artist) who pops into what is supposed to be kid-friendly YouTube content and apps like WhatsApp, telling kids to kill themselves. Warnings over the last week have been making the rounds via social media — even celebrities like Kim Kardashian are doing their part to spread the news.
Parents took the warnings seriously, not only sharing the info with other parents but talking to kids directly. Apparently, that's not a good thing.
Experts are saying the number of reported cases of children harming themselves because of the game is extremely low. They also argue that more damage is being done by parents whipping themselves up into a frenzy over it.
Carmel Glassbrook, manager of Professionals Online Safety Helpline, told Forbes, “The main problem was not the phenomenon itself but that professionals and parents were sharing Facebook posts about Momo without checking on its validity."
She added, "It has become a viral topic, founded more on scaremongering headlines than well-researched facts."
For instance, BBC reported police shared concerns the challenge is linked to "hackers" who use the chat to access personal information about the kids contacted. Though it is technically possible hackers could use the game to get information, the type of data shared makes it highly unlikely to pose a real threat.
Glassbrook said the real danger is parents being distracted from the "real issues" of teaching children how to safely use the internet.
There is some validity to that. After all, only caring about a fad-crisis isn't teaching kids about long-term online safety.
Not all experts agree that parents should be shrugging this off. "I can see both sides of the perspective," licensed psychologist Dr. Sheri Fluellen told CafeMom. "Yes, it could be seen as being blown out of proportion and that could be the case for some individual kids. Some kids can see and hear contrary and alarming things but have stronger resilience to their influence. However, the safer strategy when one is looking at the impact on a large scale AND when looking at the impact on one’s own kids, being more cautious and vigilant is going to almost never be a 'wrong' answer."
Suicide is the second leading cause of death in people aged 10 to 24. Furthermore, there are an average of over 3,041 attempts each day by young people grades 9 [through] 12 in the U.S. If those percentages included grades 7 and 8, the numbers would be higher.
"Sadly, at some point, whether due to an online scam, a story in the news, or another child in your school or community, the reality of suicide will come up," adult and adolescent psychotherapist Christine Triano told CafeMom. "This latest online scare may be the opportunity to have this discussion with your child."
It's important to remember that Momo isn't the only thing infiltrating kids' online space with insidious messaging.
Just ask mom Meridy Leeper.
Out of seemingly nowhere, Leeper's 7-year-old daughter had an intense anxiety attack. "I was really worried and confused. I had no idea what could have triggered that in a 7-year-old," Leeper told CafeMom.
The following day, her daughter drew a picture (above) of a young girl hanging from a noose and Leeper was finally able to get her to open up. "She has expressed that she doesn't feel neglected or unloved," Leeper shared on Facebook. "Instead, she was constantly told to 'go kill yourself' by other gamers, by kids youtube. Shown HOW to."
YouTuber "Filthy Frank" was spliced into several YouTube Kids cartoons, showing kids the "proper" way to slit their wrists.
"Remember kids, sideways for attention, longways for results," he says, then mimes cutting motions on his forearm. "End it."
Even familiar faces like Peppa Pig get perverted, showing violent images of the beloved children's character doing everything from killing her father to harming herself. And yes, even Momo has made its way into those videos, too.
"Disturbing images can have a real impact on kids of any age. For kids under 10, they might have nightmares, become more fearful or clingy, or even possibly believe that a scary online character is personally seeking them out or could show up in real life," said Triano. "A younger child's ability to discern fact from fiction is not as developed as an older child's, which is part of why they are so wonderful and imaginative, and also what could make them vulnerable to harmful content."
It isn't as if YouTube is ignorant to the issue, either — in November 2017, YouTube issued a "crackdown" on those inappropriate videos, putting an age restriction on certain pieces of unsavory content.
So, what is a parent to do? Err on the side of caution. Like it or not, screens aren't going anywhere — so even if there's no validity to the challenge, it's an important topic to discuss.
"Suicidal thoughts do need to be addressed," Dr. Fluellen asserted. "If they are not talked about openly with kids, kids will interpret that to mean that they can’t talk about it with their parents/adults. They will keep them to themselves, at least, or even share them with their friends who may not have the emotional maturity to deal with them well. This cycle has to change."
"The conversation can go something like 'Have any of your friends ever talked about being so sad that they think about killing themselves? Getting really sad is actually pretty common. I remember I had times when I was about 16 where I thought life sucked so much that maybe I'd be better off if I was dead. But then within a year or two, things changed and I realized that how I felt in the past wasn't the same way I would feel forever. Can you imagine what would have been different if I actually committed suicide? You wouldn’t even be here! Emotions change all the time, and I would like you to talk to me anytime, especially if you are having difficulty emotions that you're not sure what to do with. I will listen to you and together we’ll figure out a plan to help you through your sadness.'"
If you or someone you love is struggling with suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at: 1-800-273-8255
This post was originally published on Mom.me sister site CafeMom.