The "Momo Scare" Goes Viral Again

The reality of the "Momo suicide game" is that it's tapping into parental fear.

Posted Feb 28, 2019

A creepy-looking Japanese cartoon figure suddenly pops up in the middle of a Youtube video for children, urging them to kill themselves or their parents. Similar messages appear on their phones, and if they refuse, the creature says it will come after them. Reports of "the Momo" have been circulating around the internet for at least the past year. The most recent flareup occurred in late February 2019 and quickly went viral. 

In reality, they are hoax videos. Momo is a hoax driven by parental fear and propagated by schools, educational watchdog groups, media outlets, and in some instances, even police agencies. Like many past social panics, it is driven by misinformation and a grain of truth. There have been rare occasions in the past when inappropriate content has popped up in kid’s videos or as social media messages. Hence, reports about the Momo are plausible and concerning for parents

The Momo Scare is just the latest in a long list of social panics on the dangers that are lurking on the Internet and social media. It is a barometer of the current state of society, reflecting parental fears and their concerns over the dangers posed to their children by social media. Ever since the advent of the Internet, parents have worried about children being exposed to inappropriate content. Momo taps into this fear. Like similar scares in the past, the threat is real but exaggerated. The reason why many parents are afraid of social media and the internet is that they are out of their control and in the hands of their more tech-savvy kids who were born during the Internet Age.    

During the 1980s and early 90s, there was a widespread fear that Satanic cultists had infiltrated daycare centers and were molesting children. The scare prompted the arrest of many childcare workers who were falsely accused. A more recent scare involved claims that young kids were choking to death after snorting condoms, despite the absence of a single confirmed death. Then there was "Slender Man" a few years ago, which was created on a forum in a competition on who could create the scariest creature.   

Another was the Blue Whale Challenge: an online “suicide game” aimed at teens which set 50 tasks to complete in 50 days—the final challenge was to kill oneself. Some reports claimed that hundreds of kids had killed themselves. The Blue Whale Challenge appears to have started in Russia and spread around the world. The evidence that children died as a result of the challenge lies somewhere between scant and non-existent. When Russian Folklorist Alexandra Arkhipova tried to study the claims, things were not as they seemed. After engaging with online groups claiming to have been part of the challenge, the so-called curators were not adults with sinister motives, but children. The kids appear to have encountered each other online in a copycat fashion.  It may be no coincidence that the Blue Whale Challenge is believed to have started in Russia as it is a country with a high teen suicide rate, reflecting popular fears of Russian parents. I have been unable to find a shred of credible evidence that anyone has killed themselves as a result of playing these "games."  

The Momo Scare is similar to recent social panics that have targeted children like the sexting and creepy clown panics.  It is only natural for parents to be preoccupied with the safety of their children. Such concerns appear throughout history. The Momo Challenge should be seen for what it is: the latest incarnation of a longstanding fear dating back to when young children first strayed from their caves and into a world rife with real dangers. The Momo Challenge is a case of old wine in new skins.     

There are many online dangers today. Momo isn’t one of them.         

References

Bartholomew, Robert E., Hassall, Peter (2015). A Colorful History of Popular Delusions. Amherst, New York: Prometheus.