The latest disturbing internet trend, which may be more myth than reality, has School District 73 issuing a warning to parents.
Known as the Momo Challenge, the alleged online form of cyberbullying is said to direct children to harm themselves, threatening dire consequences if instructions are not followed.
Reports of the game have surfaced online and it’s believed to be prevalent on platforms such as WhatsApp, Youtube and Snapchat, through which children receive anonymous threats tied to a picture of a doll with bulging eyes, long grin and black hair. This image, however, is of an unrelated sculpture created by a Japanese special-effects company.
Messages and images of the sculpture are believed to be spliced into kid-friendly videos or delivered via human-controlled characters in online games that encourage the person to text someone named Momo.
Once contacted, Momo is believed to direct people to commit sinister acts, such as harming themselves or others — and even suicide, threatening harm to them or their family if they do not comply.
In SD73’s letter, which superintendent Alison Sidow said was sent “out of an abundance of caution,” parents were urged to “talk to your children about reporting these videos to a trusted adult.”
The letter also listed a number of precautionary measures on cyber-safety.
Sidow said it’s important for parents to make their children aware they must report any online interaction that makes them feel unsafe, and to remind them they won’t be punished for doing so.
“Talk to your child about how they use the internet and social media — be supportive and encourage them to let you know if they have any problems,” Sidow’s letter reads.
The lack of verified reports of the Momo Challenge, however, have led to a slew of news articles suggesting it’s more likely a hoax than a real threat.
While police agencies in the United Kingdom and Canada — including Kamloops Crimestoppers — have sent out warnings regarding the Momo Challenge, there have been no apparent verified reports. Those warnings are based on second-hand information and there have been no official reports of individual incidents related to the Momo Challenge, according to a CTV article.
A North Ireland police department that issued a warning about Momo believes the threat has been hyped and research suggests Momo is run by hackers looking for personal information, according to an article in Rolling Stone magazine.
Trish Smille, SD73’s director of instruction, told KTW district staff became aware of the online game on Wednesday, but have received no reports of any children actually encountering Momo.
“We’ve had a very small number of students express that they have heard about it,” Smille said.
Administrators at four elementary schools contacted the district this week, asking for advice, Smille said. She said about a dozen students asked questions about the challenge, expressing that they know it exists, are curious about it and know it involves “a scary experience and that there is some possibility of being involved with a dangerous stranger.”
“It can be quite scary for a child,” she said. “The messages generally start out very innocent, as ‘Do you want to play a game?’ but then they evolve into trying to encourage a child to engage in self-harm and suicidal behaviours.”
According to the fact-checking website Snopes, documented proof of the Momo Challenge is “sketchy” and unverified. Reports of deaths in Argentina, India and Colombia supposedly linked to the Momo game have never been substantiated and its existence has been fanned by its media coverage.
“A good deal of skepticism remains that the existence of the Momo challenge may be far more hype or hoax than reality, with many critics citing the paucity of screenshots and videos documenting interactions with Momo,” writes David Mikkelson of Snopes.
In that article, Cyber-safety expert Denise DeRosa said whether real or rumoured, serves as a reminder for parents to know what their kids are doing online and the Momo rumours alone can be frightening for kids and even encourage teens to participate in risky dares.
According to the Rolling Stone article, mental-health experts caution that hysterical media coverage could potentially be harmful by inspiring imitators and, while one child may simply turn off the video, another may be more impressionable.
As the Momo encounters usually begin with online games where users are usually not recording their activities and most direct communication with Momo is said to happen via private messaging apps, capturing proof of the game’s existence can be hard to come by.
Hoax or not, Smille said SD73 is taking a proactive approach.
“We wanted to make sure that parents, as they begin hearing about this, have as much information as they can to support their children at home,” she said.
The school district advises parents to keep track of their child’s online activities, warn them not to give out personal information and to ignore messages from people they don’t recognize.
“Cyber-safety is very important,” Smille said, adding parents can contact their child’s school or Kamloops RCMP at 250-828-3000 for support if they feel their kids are being blackmailed or extorted online.