Momo challenge: The psychology of cyber-fear and what we should say to our children

Amanda Cassidy speaks to child psychologists and online safety experts to understand what parents need to know about the Momo Challenge and what they can do to keep their child safe from this disturbing viral threat. 

Parent’s WhatsApp groups have been buzzing this week with questions flying back and forth about The Momo challenge. This dare-based game sees children receiving pop-up messages which invite them to participate in a challenge which starts off with simple dares (mess up your room, play music loudly) but which quickly progress to self-harm and even suicide in some cases. The global spread of these type of dares play on children’s natural curiosity and their need to belong, but these heinous challenges have an intent to harm that has left parents feeling out of control. Sharing your number online and posting images (some of the challenges ask for photographic proof that the ‘dare’ has been carried out) is the stuff of parental nightmares.

If they do receive or come across the Momo challenge, make sure they feel they can come forward to tell you.

On a practical level, cyber safety specialist Wayne Denner says that putting in controls to homes is the first step parents should take. “This is a user-driven challenge that is targeting children using very sophisticated algorithms. In fact, sometimes it is often kids sharing it with other kids. It is important for everyone to understand firstly that it isn’t real. At home, good parental controls should be put in place. Monitor the time your children are spending online and the content they are accessing. Make sure you have a good content filter – with time limits and watch out for secretive behaviour.  If they do receive or come across the Momo challenge, make sure they feel they can come forward to tell you.  We are hearing that it often comes from suspicious email addresses and phone numbers so having your privacy settings in place is essential”.


Viral ghost story

The concern with this is that it extends beyond a single App. Often the App is just the first way to make contact, then it is prompting children to chat with them on WhatsApp and Viber. Even YouTube kids isn’t safe with ‘Kiddle’ – a child-friendly search engine that can be installed by parents being exposed to the pop-ups too. All the experts we spoke to said that the best advice is for parents to be aware and to let your child know that you can lift their device at any time to check if there is any contact with strangers online.

With contact even being made over the Hello Kitty Apps, the onus is on parents to always know what your child is doing online - no matter how old they may be.

Some of the parental controls that come with our TV networks and Internet providers aren’t always enough – paying for extra protection on your home Internet network like iKydz is worth looking into.

So if the general consensus is that it is wise to have a conversation with your child if they come across it (online or simply just in the yard), then what should you say?

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Chartered Psychologist, Allison Keating from the bWell Clinic says that although we are obviously horrified by the sinister psychological nature of these threats to children, we need to watch our tone, find out what they know first, and be careful our child doesn’t pull back into themselves if they think they might be in trouble. "This is really sickening – we’ve heard of the Momo challenge even popping up when young children are watching Peppa Pig online. We’ve heard of the tragic cases where children have self-harmed and even committed suicide but there is no evidence that they were solely as a result of the Momo challenge.

"However, we have to make sure that despite our fears, we remain in the role of the safe base and solver-of-problems for our children. They have to know that they can come to us and assure them that we have the tools to fix it".

Unfinished fear

The Momo face originates from a sculpture created by a Japanese special effects company and is called 'Mother Bird.' It is on display at Tokyo's horror art Vanilla Gallery but neither the creators of the sculpture nor the gallery have any links to the Momo challenge.

Allison says that although we should temper our reaction to these types of fears, we shouldn't ignore theirs. "We need to acknowledge their very real fear. The thing about this type of Japanese horror, that Momo is being associated with, is that it plays on an unfinished fear that leaves them hanging. For younger children, they can be terrified even of the idea of Momo and it becomes like a viral ghost story.

We have to help them finish the story. Your child might sound sophisticated and say they aren't afraid – but it is hard for them to put right emotions on it - and it can play on a loop at night when they are lying in their darkened bedroom.


"Get them to draw the fear which might also encourage them to talk about it" suggests Allison. "When they get stuck on the part that scares them the most (They may be afraid the character will come out of the screen or find them at home), you have to help them change the story – make the character more manageable. Imagine together that it has silly shoes or a funny hat, add amusing music or make it do silly things.  Fear is worse when it is left hanging. By taking on the narrative yourselves, it helps your child to put a cap on it and only then can they move past it."

Allison says that despite the negative aspects of the Momo challenge, we should also see this as an opportunity to talk to our children about the modern day version of stranger danger. “The aspect of secrecy is concerning. You need your child to know that once someone is asking you not to tell your parents, it is a red flag and they should come to you. You want your children to trust their instincts and that it is ok to talk to you. Be aware that often these challenges are deviously designed to make children feel like they can ‘conquer their fears’ and feel part of something. This is the time to rethink how your children spend their time online. For all the wonderful things the Internet can provide- information, connections, entertainment - there is a dark side. It is our job as parents to protect our children from that in whatever way we feel is right."

As parents, the uneasy feeling we have about the Momo challenge, in particular, is because we know there is probably more to come. This is a ghost story on another level. It is psychologically sinister and designed with the intent to harm our children.

Modern-day boogie man?

Our own fears are, naturally, based around knowing what the best way to tackle this issue is, especially as the consequence of what could happen (if your child followed through with the dares) is unthinkable. At the same time, we also shouldn’t feed the beast - rather than sharing warnings that perpetuate and mythologise the story, a better focus might be good positive advice for children, set up technology appropriately and taking more of an interest in their online interactions.

You can find more information from Cyber Safety Ireland here

Image: Unsplash


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