The Psychology of the Fake Momo Challenge & Other Hoax Child Internet Memes
The latest internet meme supposedly targeting children is called the Momo challenge.
It had parents very concerned, just as they were about the Blue Whale challenge before it. Parents spread the news that someone had hacked childrens’ videos on YouTube with a message from “Momo” directing the child or teen to take their own life.
It turns out, however, that the challenge wasn’t real. YouTube videos have not been hacked, and there’s no evidence that any video was ever posted that had Momo encouraging kids to try out suicide.
This is just one more example of a disturbing trend where parents are concerned about something apparently happening on the internet. But focusing their concern entirely on the wrong things.
These internet memes are called viral hoaxes, because (a) they go viral on social media due to concerned adults and parents sharing them with others and (b) they are not real and never were.1
But millions of people don’t know it’s a hoax in the beginning. They think it’s real, and with every re-tweet and share, they amplify the fake threat. Meanwhile, the real threats to children on the internet remain.
Momo is actually a sculpture created by Japanese artist Keisuke Aisawa in 2016 called Mother Bird. Like the Blue Whale challenge before it (also more of a viral hoax; or see this full history of it), local TV news stations pick up these scary stories — while never questioning the authenticity of them — as something to easily fill a few minutes in their local broadcasts. Plus it makes for great teasers: “What your kids are watching on a popular video site could kill them!”2
Anybody can check on the legitimacy of one of these challenges or questionable scary stories by simply going to the site, Know Your Meme or Snopes.com. There, enterprising researchers dig into the backstory of every internet meme to provide you the full and completely picture. For instance, here’s the entry on Momo and the Momo challenge.
Fear Makes Money
Fear always sells. Local TV news learned this decades ago. If you watched nothing but your local TV news broadcasts, you’d think your town was overrun with crime, automobile accidents, fires, and terrible impending weather events.
Once a scary internet meme starts spreading, enterprising individuals — and even entire companies — start to take advantage of it in order to make money. They do this by creating content — articles and videos — that talk about the meme as though it is real. They push out video warnings about it. They flood social media with the links to their content, which again gets virally shared as a public service announcement by well-meaning parents.
All of this content is monetized, either on YouTube or through something such as Google Adsense. That means every time someone views one of these articles or watches a video, the publisher is making money. In reaction to the fake Momo challenge, Google (the parent company of YouTube) said it would de-monetize any videos talking about the challenge. By removing the monetary incentive to produce these videos, Google is hoping to remove the reinforcements that create this viral cycle.
The problem is the time lag: that it’s been more than a week since the Momo challenge entered into people’s consciousness. By the time articles start making the rounds debunking a meme, the publishers have already made their money. A week’s worth of revenue from this type of viral hoax is still pretty significant.
The Problem of Spreading Viral Hoaxes
Viral hoaxes of this nature spread for one reason and one reason only. People are far too lazy to actually look up the story on Snopes.com or KnowYourMeme.com to confirm before sharing it. It’s so easy to share or retweet something that people just click the button and believe they’re doing their friends and followers a community service.
We always seem to assume that someone else must have verified the story’s veracity, or else why else would they be sharing it, or talking about its dangers? But nobody is verifying anything before sharing it. And that’s the problem. (That’s also the underlying problem with “fake news” on social media.)
Meanwhile, parents are ignoring (or at least often paying far less attention to) the actual, real dangers that the internet can pose to young children and teenagers.
Taylor Lorenz shares that perspective over at The Atlantic:
The problem is, these stories are only ever a distraction. They offer false reassurance and an easy fix to the wrong problem. If you can protect your child from the Momo challenge, the thinking goes, you can protect them from bad things on the internet. Unfortunately, maintaining kids’ safety online is a much more complicated and delicate task. “This whole ‘Momo is making kids commit suicide’ is a digital version of playing Beatles records backwards to hear Satanic messages,” says Ben Collins, a journalist who covers misinformation. “It does a real disservice to all the harmful stuff targeting children and teens on YouTube.”
What many parents miss is that the platforms themselves often perpetuate harm. Their automated moderation systems fail to flag inappropriate content. Their skewed content-recommendation algorithms promote extremist beliefs. They don’t protect kids against cyberbullying from peers, they milk kids under the age of 13 for money and engagement, and they promote truly gruesome content.
In other words, a lot of platforms — especially video services like YouTube — do a pretty horrible job of protecting kids. There’s an entire generation that has grown up with the poor moderation tools and algorithms used on YouTube already. Only now are social media and other sharing platforms beginning to fully realize the scope and severity of the problem. It’s too little, too late.
What You Can Do to Better Protect Your Child
The best thing you can do for your children then is to monitor and be aware of their online use of these and other services (some that you may have never even heard of). Don’t allow them to surf the internet alone, and keep them in walled gardens of safe child-oriented services until they’re a teenager.
Use negative content they find online as teaching moments. Explain to a child that not everyone is nice in the world, and some people are purposely mean to just get a reaction from others (such as trolls). Explain that there’s an endless supply of negative content available online, and that they have to sometimes make a conscious choice to not fall down those rabbit holes.
As your children age into the teenage years, they’re going to want and need more privacy. That includes online privacy too. Good parents recognize when it’s time to give up some of their control over their children, and give them increasing amounts of privacy and responsibility, and see how that goes.
Raising children in an always-connected world is difficult. You can make it easier by not mindlessly repeating stories and memes you haven’t personally verified to be true. And you can learn to be better aware of the actual dangers children online face, actively working to protect them from these real potential problems.
For further information
The Atlantic: Momo Is Not Trying to Kill Children
- You have to wonder how stupid or naive parents think their children or teens are anyway, that just because a video said, “Hey kids, it’s fun to end your life, give it a try,” they would just go and do it? Kids are usually smarter than their parents give them credit for. [↩]
- If journalism were still alive, one of those reporters would seek out some actual corroboration of the story before reporting on it. Sadly, at the local news level, such journalism is largely extinct. [↩]
Grohol, J. (2019). The Psychology of the Fake Momo Challenge & Other Hoax Child Internet Memes. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 10, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-psychology-of-the-fake-momo-challenge-other-hoax-child-internet-memes/