Holly Pittaway discusses how the media is perhaps to blame for the escalation of the ‘Momo Challenge’
As often happens with social media, internet crazes spread like wildfire – the cinnamon challenge, the Harlem shake, and the ALS ice bucket challenge are examples we can all remember, though not always fondly. But recently, a new, more sinister challenge has taken the media by storm – the ‘Momo Challenge’.
Reports of the Momo Challenge began surfacing as early as August of last year, claiming that the game had originated in South America, originally as a WhatsApp challenge whereby the young victim would be sent an image of ‘Momo’ (actually a photograph of a sculpture by Japanese artist, Keisuke Aiso), along with a dangerous task, such as self-harm, for the recipient to complete. Several suicides on the continent have been potentially linked to the challenge, notably that of a 12-year-old girl in Argentina in July, as well as of two Colombian schoolchildren in September.
Last month, however, has marked a turning point in the Momo media buzz after the challenge allegedly resurfaced on the kids’ section of YouTube; it was claimed that videos starting off innocent enough, for example as a toy unboxing or Peppa Pig episode, would turn into the Momo challenge at the half-way mark. The disturbing image of ‘Momo’ would then appear on screen and threaten the viewer, challenging them to hurt themselves, or someone else, or else they and their family would be killed.
When parents heard of this, obviously they took to social media to warn others – even Kim Kardashian-West posted about it to her 128 million followers on Instagram, urging parents to ‘monitor what your kids are watching’. As a result of public concern, British police issued an official warning over the challenge to parents and children alike, as they feared that the game could potentially go further than just online threats; ‘even basic open source research suggests that ‘Momo’ is run by hackers who are looking for personal info,’ they said in an official statement. In the US, some schools even decided to temporarily cut YouTube access in order to prevent young people’s potential exposure to the dangerous demon.
But, despite the severity of the situation and the accusations being made, reports emerged to say that the Momo Challenge was all a hoax. According to the NSPCC, there has been ‘no confirmed evidence that the phenomenon is actually posing a threat to British children’, while a Samaritans spokesperson commented that the challenge is just a case of mass hysteria; ‘These stories being highly publicised and starting a panic means vulnerable people get to know about it and that creates a risk.’ In fact, since media coverage of the apparently deadly Momo Challenge has increased, so have our Google searches on the subject, thus fuelling the already ferocious fire.
Damage, however, has already been done. One Belfast mother told the Northern Irish media, ‘my son (6) had to go to counselling after seeing sinister Momo’; another young victim cut off all of her hair as a result of the challenge after she saw Momo in a Peppa Pig video. Children are living in fear of Momo, with some even finding it difficult to sleep through the night without having nightmares about the frightening character.
But this begs the question, would the hoax have gone so far had the media not given it so much attention? Would the image of Momo still have been so familiar, and so feared by children across the globe? Would the Momo challenge still have been picked up by the same number of content creators? The answer to all of these questions, I believe, is a resounding no – but this isn’t just my own opinion, it’s also backed up by evidence.
In the past, extreme challenges have been proliferated by the media to a pandemic scale. In 2014, an alarming number of iPhone users fell victim to a hoax spread on 4-chan which claimed that placing your device in the microwave would charge it. While the claim is obviously outrageous, it was coupled with a rather official looking announcement and even its own hashtag, #AppleWave – this proved to be sufficient evidence for some iPhone users who then tried the trick out for themselves, but were of course left with a broken phone and fire hazard.
In 2017, a more fatal social-media spread challenge captivated the globe – this time, participants were dared to eat non-edible laundry detergent pods, a.k.a. Tide Pods, which are toxic if consumed, and then post about their experience online. Eight people were reported to have died after eating tide pods between 2012 and 2017; the internet challenge became so popular that both Proctor & Gamble (the parent company of ‘Tide’) and the US Consumer Product Safety Commission had to issue a warning against the consumption of laundry pods.
Unfortunately, the spread of internet challenges is an inevitable part of the media life cycle and the Momo Challenge can attest to this. One parent saw one scary video and took to social media to put this on blast, followed by another parent, followed by the local news, followed by the police and so on, until eventually the entire world was swept up into a paranoid frenzy, all brought on by a hoax. But the Momo Challenge is just another craze to add to a long list of crazes that have already been proliferated by the media, right after the #AppleWave hoax and the Tide Pod Challenge. As long as such stories continue to be picked up by the mass media, you can bet that more and more like them are just going to keep coming.