Knowing what to pay attention to and what to ignore as a parent can be challenging.
For weeks I have been hearing and reading about this weird “Momo Challenge” featuring a creepy animatronic Japanese character with buggy eyes and long black hair. The character was created by Japanese artist Keisuke Aiso for a gallery display in 2016 and was based off a Japanese mythology creature, the ubume which is the ghost of a woman who died during childbirth. Supposedly, this Momo character was able to convince children to harm themselves. The buggy eyes frequently popped up on my social media accounts with warnings to safeguard your children.
Several N’West Iowa schools sent out warnings to parents and teachers. Boyden-Hull Elementary parents — of which I’m one — received a Feb. 28 e-mail regarding the “Momo Challenge” in which children are encouraged to participate in various tasks which may include self-harm. The school encouraged parents to focus on the bigger picture of children being pressured to perform acts and to train children how to use the internet safely. The letter said parental supervision of online activity was the best defense.
I dismissed all this as just another internet hoax and thought schools and parents were just overreacting but doing the right thing.
I found it hard to believe anything that creepy would be able to convince children to harm themselves. So Momo was ignored and my husband and I did not talk to our children about it.
Then my family and I went on a trip to Des Moines to visit some friends and get some work done.
On the way back to N’West Iowa, we stopped to get gas and I heard my 5-year-old son Kaleb say “I’m going to sing the Momo song.”
I was alarmed. I quickly found out from him and his 11-year-old sister, Kiera, that they watched Momo on YouTube while we were in Des Moines. I notified my friend Jana to let her know her child also watched Momo. She was incredibly concerned because a friend of her child was just admitted to a child’s psychiatric ward for behavior encouraged by Momo. This friend — an 8-year-old autistic girl — was a regular fixture at the apartment complex Jana and her family live in.
The girl wanted to commit suicide so she could meet Momo. Leading up to her admission, she was drawing disturbingly violent pictures of her own suicide.
I asked Kaleb what the Momo song was. He said Momo sang about killing people and told him to do it too. I went onto YouTube to find the Momo song and any other videos that might be informing children to harm themselves.
I did not find a song that had Momo telling kids to kill people or themselves. I did find a particularly creepy video with Momo’s face and the voice of a child singing about how Momo was going to kill you when you were home alone.
Disturbing and nightmarish, but no messages of self-harm or of harming other people.
Then I found another one in which Momo’s face appears in front of a black and white hypnosis screen — and the screen pops up in the middle of a completely different video. Momo tells children to get a sharp object and drag it across their wrists.
That, by itself, was horrifying.
YouTube has been deleted from our television even though Momo did not leave much of an impression on my son or my daughter.
“Momo’s dumb,” Kaleb said.
I do not believe Kaleb would purposely seek out and watch any more Momo videos, but I don’t want him to stumble across one as he searches for “Paw Patrol” videos.
Kiera said whoever is making the videos is obviously a psychopath. I am glad that she sees them for what they are. I know she will look after her little brother when their father and I am not in the room. She always has.
My daughter and Jana’s child felt bad that Kaleb watched the video. They were not aware he was peering over their shoulders. None of them got into trouble. After all we as parents had not talked to them about it.
The decision to cut YouTube out of the household was not fought.
Kiera and Jana’s child got a crash course on how impressionable children can be harmed by the videos. Kiera was clearly angry that young children are falling victim to such a ploy. Jana’s child thought Momo was a creepy thing older kids enjoyed like Slender Man, another creepy internet character designed to frighten children. However in 2014, two 12-year-old Wisconsin girls stabbed a friend to death to try to win the favor of Slender Man.
These things obviously impact certain minds — ones that are young or have difficulty discerning fantasy from reality.
Jana and I agree that Momo probably started as a joke which became a challenge for kids — something cool and fun for them to challenge one another on such as saying “Bloody Mary” in the mirror three times. Who can actually do it?
But Momo has grown into another beast. The character itself is not real. It is not going to appear in bedrooms and begin killing people. Momo is not going to jump out at anybody from behind rows of corn but the messages carried in the videos are harmful and clearly some children listen.
“This is beyond just scaring kids,” Jana said. “If a child is young enough and susceptible enough, this could have dire consequences.”
Lana Bradstream lives in Boyden and is a staff writer for The N’West Iowa REVIEW. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.