The UK Safer Internet Centre called the "Momo Challenge" suicide claims “fake news”
Groups say no evidence yet of self-harm from craze, but resulting hysteria poses a risk
It is the most talked about viral scare story of the year so far, blamed for child suicides and violent attacks – but experts and charities have warned that the “Momo challenge” is nothing but a “moral panic” spread by adults. Warnings about the supposed Momo challenge suggest that children are being encouraged to kill themselves or commit violent acts after receiving messages on messaging service WhatsApp from users with a profile picture of a distorted image of woman with bulging eyes.
News stories about the Momo challenge have also attracted hundreds of thousands of shares on Facebook in a 24-hour period, dominating the list of UK news stories ranked by number of interactions on the social network. There have also been claims that the material has appeared in a video featuring Peppa Pig among YouTube’s content aimed at children.
But the Samaritans and the NSPCC have dismissed the claims, saying that while there is no evidence that the Momo challenge has initially caused any harm itself, the ensuing media hysteria could now be putting vulnerable people at risk by encouraging them to think of self-harm. The UK Safer Internet Centre called the claims “fake news”.
And YouTube said it had seen no evidence of videos showing or promoting the Momo challenge on its platform. The NSPCC said there is no confirmed evidence that the phenomenon is actually posing a threat to British children and said they have received more phone calls about it from members of the media than concerned parents.
A Samaritans spokesperson was similarly sceptical, saying: “These stories being highly publicised and starting a panic means vulnerable people get to know about it and that creates a risk.” They recommended media outlets read their guidelines on reporting suicide and suggested press coverage is “raising the risk of harm”.
“Currently we’re not aware of any verified evidence in this country or beyond linking Momo to suicide,” said the Samaritans spokesperson.
“What’s more important is parents and people who work with children concentrate on broad online safety guidelines.” Child safety campaigners say the story has spread due to legitimate concerns about online child safety, the sharing of unverified material on local Facebook groups, and official comments from British police forces and schools which are based on little hard evidence.
While some concerned members of the public have rushed to share posts warning of the suicide risk, there are fears that they have exacerbated the situation by scaring children and spreading the images and the association with self-harm. “Even though it’s done with best intentions, publicising this issue has only piqued curiosity among young people,” said Kat Tremlett, harmful content manager at the UK Safer Internet Centre.
The rumour mill appears to have created a feedback loop, where news coverage of the Momo challenge is prompting schools or the police to warn about the supposed risks posed by the Momo challenge, which has in turn produced more news stories warning about the challenge. Tremlett said she was now hearing of children who are “white with worry” as a result of media coverage about a supposed threat that did not previously exist.
Warnings about the supposed Momo challenge suggest that children are being encouraged to kill themselves or commit violent acts after receiving messages on messaging service WhatsApp from users with a profile picture of a distorted image of woman with bulging eyes. Image: Shutterstock
“It’s a myth that is perpetuated into being some kind of reality,” she said. Although the Momo challenge has been circulating on social media and among schoolchildren in various forms since last year, the recent coverage appears to have started with a single warning posted by a mother on a Facebook group for residents of Westhoughton, a small Lancashire town on the edge of Bolton.
This post, based on an anecdote she had heard from her son at school, went viral before being picked up by her local newspaper and then covered by outlets from around the world. The supernatural “Momo” image, originally from an artwork made for a Japanese horror show exhibition, has been circulating on the internet for several years but last summer became attached to unverified claims that teenagers were being prompted to kill or harm themselves by messages on WhatsApp.
Many campaigners in the child safety sector have been reluctant to issue statements for fear of fanning the flames of the story but are changing direction after seeing the sheer number of dubious stories written to attract clicks on the issue. Hundreds of separate articles have been written on the topic by British news websites in the last three days, dominating the most-read lists on tabloid news sites. These include explainers for concerned parents on how to protect children from the supposed risks of the challenge and claims about the acts that children are supposedly committing after seeing the images.
Celebrities such as Stacey Solomon have weighed in and expressed their concerns, creating even more justifications for headlines. Multiple police forces have issued formal warnings about the supposed risks of the Momo challenge, in addition to hundreds of schools. In one example, a Hull primary school posted on its Facebook page an unsourced claim that clips of the Momo challenge image are “hacking into children’s programmes”, with no evidence of what is meant by this claim.
A YouTube spokesperson said the claims were completely false: “Contrary to press reports, we have not received any evidence of videos showing or promoting the Momo challenge on YouTube. Content of this kind would be in violation of our policies and removed immediately.” Several outlets, including the Mirror and many local newspapers, have also claimed that the Momo game has been linked to 130 teen suicides in Russia, with no supporting evidence.
An identical claim was made in 2017 about a similar supposed viral suicide craze called Blue Whale, which was also linked to exactly 130 teen suicides in Russia. This figures came from a much-criticised single report in the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, with later reporting suggesting that not a single death could be conclusively linked to the game. “We almost need to stop talking about the issue for it to not be an issue any more,” said Tremlett.
In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected] In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.