Updated February 28, 2019
The "Tide Pod Challenge" was bad enough, but the latest social media trend for teens is even more disturbing. It's called the "Momo Challenge," and it's a manipulative "game" that's reportedly been linked to self-harm and even suicide.
It begins when teens are asked to add a new contact via WhatsApp. This user claims to be "Momo" and sends a disturbing photo of a woman with bulging eyes and animal-like features. (According to Heavy.com, this widely circulated image is actually a photo of a sculpture made by a Japanese special effects company; the company has reportedly denied any connection to the "Momo Challenge.")
As you can see, it's a creepy image. After sending the photo, the person or people behind the supposed "Momo" account then present the teen victim with a series of risky and dangerous dares to complete. According to multiple reports, these challenges start small and quickly escalate into potentially deadly acts.
If teens don't do as they're instructed, the "Momo" character allegedly threatens them with violence. The victims are also reportedly asked to provide photo proof of each completed dare or face retribution from "Momo." It's a manipulative form of cyberbullying, and according to a report in Buenos Aires Times, it may be linked to the tragic suicide of a 12-year-old girl.
There have also been reports of the "Momo" character popping up in YouTube videos aimed at children. One mother's viral Facebook post claimed her six-year-old daughter was targeted by the "Momo Challenge" while watching a Peppa Pig video on YouTube Kids. And according to Metro U.K., clips of the "Momo" character telling kids to do dangerous things have been spliced into "Baby Shark" videos causing Spanish police to issue a warning.
These types of reports are obviously troubling, but YouTube denies the presence of the "Momo Challenge" on their streaming service. In a statement posted to Twitter on Wednesday, February 27, YouTube said it has "seen no recent evidence of videos promoting the Momo Challenge on YouTube. Videos encouraging harmful and dangerous challenges are against our policies."
In another tweet, YouTube wrote, "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."
It's always a good idea to monitor what your kids are watching, but all this talk about "Momo" may be causing some unnecessary parental panic. Some cyber experts say this sinister social media game could actually be a hoax. Then again, as Cyber Safety Expert Denise DeRosa told KYW Newsradio, even if the "Momo Challenge" turns out to be a modern-day urban legend, it's an important reminder for parents to know what their kids are doing online.
"You don't need to know about every platform and every app and every device out there, but you do need to know and understand your kids favorite apps, their favorite games, their devices," DeRosa said.
Parents should also educate their kids about the dangers of talking to strangers—in real life and online. And teens should know that they can and should block unknown numbers trying to contact them.
As a spokesperson for WhatsApp told Fox News in a statement, "It's easy to block any phone number and we encourage users to report problematic messages to us so we can take action."
And while we hope the "Momo Challenge" disappears quickly, the fact that people are talking about it can open up a conversation between parents and kids. As Meghan Walls, PsyD, a pediatric psychologist in Wilmington, Delaware, told NBC Philadelphia, "Preemptively addressing something with your kid is always better."
With younger children, Walls suggested, "[saying] something like, 'You know, there are some scary things that pop up on phones and tablets, and if you ever see something like that, come get me."
Older kids and teens should be told that the "Momo Challenge" is potentially dangerous, and if it gets sent to them, they need to let their parents know. It's not realistic to simply take their phones away, but parents can remind teens they're being trusted to speak up when something troubling is sent their way.