Momo may be a hoax but it has inspired copy cats

A couple weeks ago, my cousin Ariah asked me to write about Momo, a distorted smiling woman with chicken legs coming out of her cleavage who is rumored to encourage children to commit violent acts and self-harm.

I know, I know. I’m behind on this latest internet “trend,” which actually started last year. But I’ve been putting off writing about it because I didn’t want pictures of her eerie smile, stringy hair, snake-like nose and soul-penetrating eyes to pop up as soon as I Googled “Momo.”

Every time I see her caricature face, a shiver runs down my spine – so I can’t even imagine what children, some no older than four or five, must think when they see photos of her.

Okay - *deep breath* - I’m going to put on my big girl pants because I know I’ve put off writing this post long enough!

But first, here’s a picture of Momo with her head superimposed on actor Jason Momoa’s body (this makes her a little less terrifying, doesn’t it? If not, I'm sorry if I scarred you even more!)

Okay, okay, sorry, back on topic.

According to the lore, images of Momo supposedly pop up on messaging services like WhatsApp, blackmailing children into doing various violent dares and, ultimately, killing themselves.

But…in the time between me first hearing about Momo and finally gaining the courage to write about it, Momo has been deemed an overblown hoax. According to an article on the news website Vox, there is no evidence that the “Momo Challenge” has actually led to self-harm. Instead, it became a viral phenomenon not because of any actual incidents with children but because of Facebook posts by parents, news articles, celebrity tweets, emails sent by schools, etc.

YouTuber ReignBot said, “Finding screenshots of interactions with Momo is nearly impossible and you’d think there’d be more for such a supposedly widespread thing.”

So, where did "Momo" come from then? 

It's actually a sculpture created by Japanese artist Keisuke Aisawa for a gallery display in 2016. The sculpture is based off a mythological creature - the ghost of a woman who died during childbirth. Vox credits a Creepypasta Reddit user (most likely) with coming up with the fake urban legend upon seeing this creepy sculpture.

But, of course, with any hoax or viral story also comes copycats. And that’s what I’m most worried about.

Ariah told me that she and her 4-year-old son were watching Wonderpets on YouTube when a demonic face popped up on the screen. She has heard other horror stories from parents. Some say their child was watching a “My Little Pony” video when, all of the sudden, one of the ponies hangs herself. Others say their child encountered a video of Peppa Pig overdosing on opioids.

“We try to raise awareness about suicide to prevent it from happening, and there are videos like these, targeting the little ones that are trying to watch their kid shows,” Ariah said. “Most parents just hand their kids the phone and walk away. Who knows how many kids have seen this stuff?”

Lana Bradstream, a columnist with The N'West Iowa Review, reported a personal experience with Momo. She said, on her way back from a trip, her 5-year-old son announced he was going to sing the "Momo Song." The lyrics to said song: "Momo's going to kill you. At night she'll come, when you're in bed. In the morning, you'll be dead." (Okay, this song is going to give ME nightmares and freakin' 5-year-olds are hearing it!) 

Lana did her own research (thank you for doing it so I didn't have to!) and found a video of Momo's face on a black and white hypnosis screen, telling children to drag a sharp object across their wrists. 

"Whoever is making the videos is obviously a psychopath," she wrote. "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."

Whether or not the Momo urban legend is true, there are plenty of other videos and scams out there targeting children and trying to get them to hurt themselves - some inspired by Momo herself. And this serves as a harrowing reminder – not only for parents to monitor their children’s online activity but to also discuss self-harm, suicide and mental illness before the child hears about it from someone else.

National Online Safety advises parents to set up parental controls on their devices at home to help restrict the type of content they can view.

PEOPLE’s Health Squad pediatrician Dr. Elizabeth Murray said, "We need to look at the safety associated with our child’s online presence in a similar way to teaching them to cross the street or drive a car."

"The easiest way to start (arming your child) is simply by being present. ... For elementary-school-aged children, they should be on their devices at the kitchen table or other close proximity to an adult. That way, you’re monitoring, but (also) allowing some independence.”

Make sure to also encourage your child or teen to let you know if they are being bullied (Momo is a form of online bullying!) and that you will always be there to help them and support them.

The other part of the Momo legend - self-harm and mental illness - is also an equally, if not more, important conversation to have with your children. And I know it can be hard to talk about and that, for some, this may be on par on the nerve-wracking scale with giving the sex talk. But it's something that needs to be done!

An article by The Children’s Center for Psychiatry, Psychology, & Related Services states that these online videos can set a child over the edge who already has suicidal idealizations. 

Madelyn S. Gould, a psychiatrist at Columbia University, said in the article, "Be assured that it is okay to use the word 'suicide' – saying the word will not raise the chance that (a child) will act on the idea. If your child admits that they are considering suicide, be empathetic about their feelings – don’t judge them."

Cyberpsychology expert Dr. Dawn Branley Bell told iNews, “I feel that our time and effort would be better spent concentrating on addressing the reasons behind the initial psychological vulnerability — whether that is low self-esteem, mental health issues, or environmental issues — rather than the online content.”

For more information on how to talk to your child/teen about suicide, visit the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide's website.

Let your child know that if they see something distressing online or want to talk to a professional, they can text "Talk" to the free phone service Childline at 50101. Anyone who is considering suicide should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, available 24 hours everyday.

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