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Separating fact from fiction on the Momo Challenge
Published Thursday, February 28, 2019 1:13PM EST
Warning: This story contains a disturbing image below.
The Momo Challenge has dominated social media this week, with story after story being shared about the creepy face and its supposed instructions.
But how much is really known about the so-called challenge, and how much has been invented as the story has spread through the internet?
Are children really being contacted by a stranger telling them to harm themselves? Are any actually doing it? And where did that image of “Momo” come from?
Read on to find out what we know – and what we don’t – about the latest social media sensation.
What is the Momo Challenge?
Descriptions of the Momo Challenge don’t always match up with each other, but there are some common themes. Reports generally involve messages being spliced into otherwise innocuous videos or delivered by human-controlled characters in online games.
These messages typically urge children to contact somebody known as Momo via a social media service such as WhatsApp or Snapchat.
Once contacted, Momo is said to direct people to commit criminal acts or harm themselves – sometimes even providing instructions for suicide – and threaten harm to a user or their family if the directions are not followed.
Didn’t I read that a child died?
Although there have been media reports claiming children killed or seriously injured themselves at Momo’s behest, none of these claims have ever been confirmed by authorities.
The first media coverage about the Momo Challenge may have come from Argentina last July, when the Buenos Aires Times reported that it was being investigated as a possible contributing factor to the suicide death of a 12-year-old girl. Police never confirmed whether that theory was borne out by their investigation.
Similar reports out of India and Colombia have described the Momo Challenge as a “suicide game” without official confirmation of a link between the reported deaths and Momo-like social media communications.
Momo returned to the news this week following a report in Scotland’s The Herald newspaper about Lyn Dixon, who said her eight-year-old son told her he had seen the Momo image accompanied by a demand to hurt himself.
What’s with that picture?
With bulging eyes, wild hair and a wicked smile, the image most often associated with Momo is a striking one – and that’s even before you notice that the creature’s below-the-neck anatomy barely resembles that of a human.
Internet sleuths have traced the image to a photo of a sculpture by a Japanese special-effects company, which was taken at a gallery in Tokyo. The photo was posted to Instagram in 2016 by an account that has since been deleted.
The photo appears to have first been connected to Momo last summer, shortly after it was posted to a Reddit’s “creepy” page and about two weeks before the death of the girl in Argentina.
So is it real, or is it a hoax?
It’s hard to say.
While police agencies in Canada and the United Kingdom have issued warnings about the challenge, they were all based on secondhand information – not on any specific reports they had received.
In fact, there have not been any official reports of individual incidents related to the Momo Challenge.
As explained above, any claims of children being injured or killed while following Momo’s instructions have not been substantiated by authorities.
David Mikkelson, the founder of fact-checking website Snopes, has stopped short of using the word hoax but has noted that that documented proof of Momo’s existence is “sketchy” and unverified.
More concerning to Mikkelson than the initial incidents that prompted media coverage of Momo is the coverage itself amplifying the Momo phenomenon.
“Anything that puts suggestions and images of self-harm and suicide in front of children who are already vulnerable to self-esteem and other psychological issues (including suicidal tendencies) can carry dangerous potential,” he wrote.
If there has been no confirmation Momo is real, does that mean there’s nothing to worry about?
Not necessarily. Just because something hasn’t been officially verified doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened.
It’s possible that children have been urged to hurt themselves or others by someone identifying themselves as Momo. It’s also possible that the entire craze has been an overblown reaction to one relatively harmless encounter, or that it was entirely fabricated from the beginning.
Making it particularly difficult to tell how much of the story is real is that many of the supposed Momo encounters begin with messages delivered in online games, where users are usually not recording their activities.
Additionally, most direct communication with Momo is said to happen via platforms such as WhatsApp and Snapchat, where conversations are likewise typically private by default.
This makes it hard for users to capture proof of any meetings with Momo – and hard for fact-checkers to definitively prove that such meetings are not happening.
How can I keep my kids safe?
Some of the police responses to the Momo Challenge have included advice on how to protect children, stressing that the methods that work for avoiding Momo are also good online safety tips in general.
This advice typically includes watching what children are accessing online, stressing that they should report anything that makes them scared or uncomfortable to a trusted adult, and reminding them never to give out personal information to a stranger.
The RCMP maintains an online portal of resources around child internet safety, including links to interactive learning tools geared toward children.