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Viral ‘Momo challenge’ is a malicious hoax, say charities. Groups say no evidence yet of self-harm from craze, but resulting hysteria poses a risk

The 'Momo challenge' involves a ghoulish figure

There is no evidence the so-called “Momo challenge” poses any threat to British children, a minister has said.

Speaking in the Commons, Andrea Leadsom pointed out that children’s charities have said reports of a ghoulish figure being linked to messages urging recipients to self-harm or take their own lives are a hoax.

Conservative MP Douglas Ross raised the matter on Wednesday, asking for a debate on online safety following messages from worried constituents.

He said: “Can we have a debate and allow the government to explain what more we can do to protect and educate young people about the scourge of these online dangers?”

It comes after a report in The Guardian detailed how the “moral panic” has spread online, fuelled by viral news stories and warnings from police forces and schools.

 

Commons leader Mrs Leadsom said the “appalling” challenge was “one the government is extremely concerned about”, adding ministers were drawing up legislation to compel internet companies to take action to safeguard vulnerable users, particularly children.

She said charities had told her there was “no confirmed evidence” it had caused any children in the UK to self-harm.

 

It is the most talked about viral scare story of the year so far, blamed for child suicides and violent attacks – but experts and charities have warned that the “Momo challenge” is nothing but a “moral panic” spread by adults.

Warnings about the supposed Momo challenge suggest that children are being encouraged to kill themselves or commit violent acts after receiving messages on messaging service WhatsApp from users with a profile picture of a distorted image of a woman with bulging eyes.

News stories about the Momo challenge have also attracted hundreds of thousands of shares on Facebook in a 24-hour period, dominating the list of UK news stories ranked by number of interactions on the social network.

There have also been claims that the material has appeared in a video featuring Peppa Pig among YouTube’s content aimed at children.

But the Samaritans and the NSPCC have dismissed the claims, saying that while there is no evidence that the Momo challenge has initially caused any harm itself, the ensuing media hysteria could now be putting vulnerable people at risk by encouraging them to think of self-harm.

The UK Safer Internet Centre called the claims “fake news”. And YouTube said it had seen no evidence of videos showing or promoting the Momo challenge on its platform.

The NSPCC said there is no confirmed evidence that the phenomenon is actually posing a threat to British children and said they have received more phone calls about it from members of the media than concerned parents.

A Samaritans spokesperson was similarly sceptical, saying: “These stories being highly publicised and starting a panic means vulnerable people get to know about it and that creates a risk.” They recommended media outlets read their guidelines on reporting suicide and suggested press coverage is “raising the risk of harm”.

“Currently we’re not aware of any verified evidence in this country or beyond linking Momo to suicide,” said the Samaritans spokesperson. “What’s more important is parents and people who work with children concentrate on broad online safety guidelines.”

Child safety campaigners say the story has spread due to legitimate concerns about online child safety, the sharing of unverified material on local Facebook groups, and official comments from British police forces and schools which are based on little hard evidence.

While some concerned members of the public have rushed to share posts warning of the suicide risk, there are fears that they have exacerbated the situation by scaring children and spreading the images and the association with self-harm.

“Even though it’s done with best intentions, publicising this issue has only piqued curiosity among young people,” said Kat Tremlett, harmful content manager at the UK Safer Internet Centre.

The rumour mill appears to have created a feedback loop, where news coverage of the Momo challenge is prompting schools or the police to warn about the supposed risks posed by the Momo challenge, which has, in turn, produced more news stories warning about the challenge.

Tremlett said she was now hearing of children who are “white with worry” as a result of media coverage about a supposed threat that did not previously exist.

“It’s a myth that is perpetuated into being some kind of reality,” she said.

Although the Momo challenge has been circulating on social media and among schoolchildren in various forms since last year, the recent coverage appears to have started with a single warning posted by a mother on a Facebook group for residents of Westhoughton, a small Lancashire town on the edge of Bolton. This post, based on an anecdote she had heard from her son at school, went viral before being picked up by her local newspaper and then covered by outlets from around the world.

The supernatural “Momo” image, originally from an artwork made for a Japanese horror show exhibition, has been circulating on the internet for several years but last summer became attached to unverified claims that teenagers were being prompted to kill or harm themselves by messages on WhatsApp.

Many campaigners in the child safety sector have been reluctant to issue statements for fear of fanning the flames of the story but are changing direction after seeing the sheer number of dubious stories written to attract clicks on the issue.

Hundreds of separate articles have been written on the topic by British news websites in the last three days, dominating the most-read lists on tabloid news sites. These include explainers for concerned parents on how to protect children from the supposed risks of the challenge and claims about the acts that children are supposedly committing after seeing the images. Celebrities such as Stacey Solomon have weighed in and expressed their concerns, creating even more justifications for headlines.

Multiple police forces have issued formal warnings about the supposed risks of the Momo challenge, in addition to hundreds of schools. In one example, a Hull primary school posted on its Facebook page an unsourced claim that clips of the Momo challenge image are “hacking into children’s programmes”, with no evidence of what is meant by this claim.

A YouTube spokesperson said the claims were completely false: “Contrary to press reports, we have not received any evidence of videos showing or promoting the Momo challenge on YouTube. Content of this kind would be in violation of our policies and removed immediately.”

Several outlets, including the Mirror and many local newspapers, have also claimed that the Momo game has been linked to 130 teen suicides in Russia, with no supporting evidence.

An identical claim was made in 2017 about a similar supposed viral suicide craze called Blue Whale, which was also linked to exactly 130 teen suicides in Russia. This figures came from a much-criticised single report in the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, with later reporting suggesting that not a single death could be conclusively linked to the game.

“We almost need to stop talking about the issue for it to not be an issue any more,” said Tremlett.

  • In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected] In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

 

Momo image

Following a flurry of scare stories, some schools have warned parents about the “momo challenge” – but fact-checkers say it is a hoax.

The original tale said a character with bulging eyes would “hack” into WhatsApp and set children dangerous “challenges” such as harming themselves.

Charities say there have been no reports of anybody being “hacked” or harming themselves as a result.

But the image is now being shared on social media to frighten children.

It has been found edited into unofficial copies of children’s cartoons such as Peppa Pig on YouTube.

“News coverage of the momo challenge is prompting schools or the police to warn about the supposed risks posed by the momo challenge, which has in turn produced more news stories warning about the challenge,” said the Guardian media editor Jim Waterson.

What is ‘momo’?

In February, versions of the momo story went viral on social media. They attracted hundreds of thousands of shares and resulted in news stories reporting the tale.

According to the story, children are contacted on WhatsApp by an account claiming to be momo. Some versions of the tale suggested “hackers” made the image appear on the phone unexpectedly.

Children are supposedly encouraged to save the character as a contact and are then asked to carry out challenges, as well as being told not to tell other members of their family.

The UK Safer Internet Centre told the Guardian that it was “fake news”.

However, unofficial copies of cartoons such as Peppa Pig have been uploaded to YouTube with footage of “momo” edited in. Children watching unofficial uploads may therefore be exposed to the distressing images.

Several articles claimed the momo challenge had been “linked” to the deaths of 130 teenagers in Russia. The reports have not been corroborated by the relevant authorities.

On Wednesday, police in Northern Ireland sought to reassure parents about the doll figure with bulging eyes.

The image of momo is actually a photo of a sculpture by Japanese special-effects company Link Factory. According to pop-culture website Know Your Meme, it first gained attention in 2016.

‘Urban legend’

Fact-checking website Snopes suggested the story was “far more hype or hoax than reality”, but warned the images could still cause distress to children.

“The subject has generated rumours that in themselves can be cause for concern among children,” wrote David Mikkelson on the site.

Police in the UK have not reported any instances of children harming themselves due to the momo meme.

The charity Samaritans said it was “not aware of any verified evidence in this country or beyond” linking the momo meme to self-harm.

The NSPCC told the Guardian it had received more calls from newspapers than from concerned parents.

What should parents do?

Police have suggested that rather than focusing on the specific momo meme, parents could use the opportunity to educate children about internet safety, as well as having an open conversation about what children are accessing.

“This is merely a current, attention-grabbing example of the minefield that is online communication for kids,” wrote the Police Service of Northern Ireland, in a Facebook post.

Broadcaster Andy Robertson, who creates videos online as Geek Dad, said in a podcast that parents should not “share warnings that perpetuate and mythologise the story”.

“A better focus is good positive advice for children, setting up technology appropriately and taking an interest in their online interactions,” he said.

To avoid causing unnecessary alarm, parents should also be careful about sharing news articles with other adults that perpetuate the myth.

 

https://news.sky.com/story/no-evidence-of-any-threat-to-children-from-momo-challenge-says-minister-11651141

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/feb/28/viral-momo-challenge-is-a-malicious-hoax-say-charities

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-47393510