I had little doubt the Momo Challenge was a hoax when I first heard about it. And last week my news feed became overwhelmed with articles testifying to that conclusion. I was pleased to see this moral panic squashed in a world populated by flat Earthers, anti-vaxxers, persons who think a cold Minnesota January disproves climate change, and non-GMO labels on foods that have no genetically-modified equivalent. Score one for reasoned thinking.
Momo is a sculpture created by a Japanese special effects company and there is no evidence she has been coopted by a shadowy organization dedicated to fomenting a mass suicide of teens and tweens.
Still, an online legend tells of children being enticed to harm themselves by a creepy, bug-eyed critter who is equal parts reptilian, avian, and woman. Momo is said to pop up on social media posts, messaging apps, and videos. She then instructs, encourages, or threatens children to complete increasingly dangerous tasks like pill-popping, slicing their skin, or stabbing others. She often warns participants to never tell authority figures about the challenge, which often ends in suicide.
While there is no evidence this game is real, it plays on concerns of legitimate phenomena such cyberbullying and sextortion. It also repackages campfire tales of hook killers and dead children embedded in a drunk driver’s car grill and fits them for the modern age and today’s technology. Skeptic leader Benjamin Radford considers the Momo Challenge to be a continuation of folk tales where youngsters are challenged to conduct a bravery ritual. This could including laying on train tracks, spending time in a haunted location, or chanting “Bloody Mary” into a mirror.
Beyond panicky parents, irresponsible TV networks are also fanning the fearful flames. CBS Baltimore reported that Momo “can target kids through Peppa Pig or Fortnite when parents aren’t around.” Yes, this creature is so frightening and cunning she somehow knows when adults leave the house. Not just a certain set of parents, but any adults worldwide who have children at home. Asserting that such a skill exists should have been a huge tipoff that none of this was real and the network was negligent to not better question this story before airing it.
The decision may have been partly driven by there being several dozen 24-7 news outlets competing to fill space or airtime. Part of that airtime was spent on CBS Baltimore going so far as to claim Momo has been “reportedly linked to suicides in other countries,” without specifying where this happened or what the victim’s name was. Indeed, while the game has been blamed for a handful of suicides, none of those deaths have been confirmed as being part of a twisted viral challenge, for which no evidence exists.
The character is now one of the most ubiquitous and well-known in the online universe. Yet none of the many Momo images that have been shared show her taking a menacing tone with vulnerable youngsters. Instead, we’re just seeing the same picture of the same sculpture. She is touted as a widespread danger in a time where everyone has multiple ways of recording at any moment and we still lack any documentation of this twisted game happening. The closest thing are edited Peppa Pig videos with Momo sliced in, and these are not tied to anyone committing self-harm.
Still, news reports include boilerplate language about police warnings and sick cyber stalkers. There are also exhortations to monitor children’s activities and regularly check their apps and devices. Those are sound ideas, but a nonexistent threat need not be the impetus to follow through on them.
One UK parent told the credulous Daily Mail the game bore the responsibility for her 5-year-old cutting off part of her own hair. I can affirm that self-administered Kindergartener trims take place without a disturbing online presence being involved. A Kansas mother likewise blamed Momo for her son’s angry outbursts. This continues a long trend of cursing culture icons for leading youth down a wayward path. Before Momo, there was Beavis and Butt-Head, before Beavis, there was Elvis, and before Elvis there were wood-pulp paper books.
Indeed, the Momo Challenge has the features of a moral panic. First, it centers on a demented group or activity that attack us decent folk. Second, the response to moral panics is disproportionate to the threat they pose. Finally, for all the alarm they cause, moral panics have a relatively short shelf life, and this has been exacerbated in the social media age. Society has overcome its fear of comic books, Buddy Holly, and Dungeons & Dragons, and Momo seems headed for a quick retirement. Just as certain is that the resulting moral-panic vacuum will be short-lived.