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What Is The Momo Challenge? Is The Online ‘Suicide Game’ Even Real?

Is the Momo challenge something parents should be worried about? Some have called it a suicide game and parents are up in arms. But is the panic necessary? 

By Sharon Lynn Pruitt
Kids on computer

Is the Momo challenge an actual danger to children, or just an imaginary threat preying on adults' anxiety?

If you have access to the internet, chances are you may have heard of the Momo challenge by now. It’s been called a suicide game and supposedly involves the image of an unsettling humanoid-like creature popping up on social media apps like YouTube and WhatsApp and instructing children to do dangerous things and potentially even harm themselves or others.

Concerned parents on social media have been sharing viral posts that contain warnings about the supposed suicide challenge, and a number of police departments around the country have even issued warnings of their own. In an alert issued on social media on Thursday, the Austin Independent School District Police suggested that messages from Momo may even be hidden in videos meant specifically for children, and may slip by unnoticed if the content is hidden in the middle of videos rather than, say, the beginning.

In recent weeks, parents have been inundated with countless ominous Facebook posts warning of a “friend of a friend’s child” committing suicide or hurting themselves because of the challenge. Lending an air of credibility to the chilling claims so often seen on social media, however, is Pearl Wood’s story. Wood, the mother of a 12-year-old girl on the autism spectrum, told Sacramento’s CBS 13 that her child had been exposed to Momo videos spliced into children’s videos, and that the creepy character had been instructing her daughter to do dangerous things, like turn on the gas stove while her mother was sleeping.

“Just another minute she could’ve blown up my apartment, she could’ve hurt herself, other people, beyond scary,” Woods said.

Authorities in other countries like Argentina and Colombia have also linked the disturbing challenge to the suicide deaths of children. A mother in Utah reports that coming across the Momo photo gave her child nightmares, while police in Northern Ireland report that both children and adults have been contacted via apps like WhatsApp and instructed to do dangerous things. But are these cases indicative of a widespread problem, or the basis of an internet urban legend that’s spun out of control, thanks to the online rumor mill and malicious copycats?

How did the story spread?

Like many of the urban legends of the internet that came before it, the Momo challenge is shrouded in mystery with an origin that’s hard to pinpoint. Sporadic law enforcement warnings and media coverage go back to at least last year, but The Washington Post attributes the current spike in the Momo craze to a Feb. 17 Facebook post in a group for the residents of Westhoughton, England. A concerned parent who anonymously shared a warning about the challenge claimed that she’d found out from her child’s teacher that her child had been upsetting other students by telling them that Momo would kill them. The story spread from there, from local papers to national news outlets until the warning made its way to American soil to terrify a whole new nation of parents.

Is the Momo challenge a hoax?

The short answer? Yes, most likely.

Numerous outlets have branded the challenge a hoax, if an extremely popular one. The Momo challenge is just the latest iteration of fear-mongering among parents with stories that don’t hold water, The Atlantic claimed, while CNN has pointed out there is no substantial evidence to support claims that the Momo challenge is as widespread or as deadly as social media would have you believe.

David Mikkelson, founder of popular debunking site Snopes.com, described claims of Momo being a dangerous “global phenomenon” as “fear-driven exaggeration lacking in supportive evidence” in a statement issued to CNN.

To put it simply: there have been no deaths with proven links to the challenge, according to the Washington Post.

Authorities overseas seem to agree. UK charities devoted to protecting children, like the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the UK Safer Internet Center and the Samaritans, have claimed that there is little evidence to support claims that the challenge is deadly, according to The Guardian.

Kim Kardashian, along with other concerned parents who have taken to social media to warn each other about the dangers of Momo, can probably rest easy now.

YouTube and Whatsapp have both responded

Some have warned of Momo popping up unexpectedly in YouTube videos aimed at children, and while unknown parties sneaking inappropriate content into kid’s videos on the platform is definitely an issue that’s been gaining traction, YouTube says that they haven’t found any proof that Momo videos exist.

“We want to clear something up regarding the Momo Challenge: We’ve seen no recent evidence of videos promoting the Momo Challenge on YouTube. Videos encouraging harmful and dangerous challenges are against our policies,” the company said in a brief statement issued Wednesday. “If you see videos including harmful or dangerous challenges on YouTube, we encourage you to flag them to us immediately. These challenges are clearly against our Community Guidelines.”

WhatsApp, another platform that’s been linked to the Momo craze, emphasized that their rules do not allow users to promote any kind of self-injurious behavior in a statement obtained by Tampa Bay’s WFTS.

“We care about the safety of our community and want to provide assistance for people in distress. As outlined in our Community Standards, we don’t allow the promotion of self-injury or suicide and will remove it when reported to us,” their statement reads. “We also provide people who have expressed suicidal thoughts, and people who want to reach out to a friend who may be struggling, with a number of support options and resources. These global tools and resources were developed with the help of over 70 mental health partners around the world and we’re continuously improving them to build a safer and more supportive community on Facebook.”

If the Momo challenge isn’t real, what’s in the photo?

Once you see the image, it’s pretty hard to forget: Momo has a woman’s head, with bulging black eyes and scraggly dark hair, and a bird’s body, like a ghoulish, Frankenstein-esque taxidermy attempt gone horribly wrong. However, the Momo image that's being used to terrify children (or their parents, at least) is actually just art.

CNN revealed Momo’s true heritage in their report on the trend this week: she’s the product of the Link Factory, a special effects company based in Japan. They even posted a photo last summer of the unsettling sculpture, called “Mother Bird,” that would later become known as “Momo.”

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