“An evil suicide game” was how one newspaper described the “Momo challenge”, a so-called game that supposedly involved children receiving a series of threatening and increasingly dangerous instructions from an anonymous contact on their smartphone. Such sensationalist reporting risked whipping up a frenzied panic, and it soon became apparent there was little evidence the game was real, with one children’s organisation saying it had received more enquiries from the press than from parents.
It’s easy to see why parents would be worried by reports of this purported phenomena, which are accompanied by a particularly creepy image of a doll reminiscent of something from a Japanese horror film. But the Momo challenge is simply the latest digital hoax, an urban legend able to develop and gain momentum because of the sharing of videos, articles and warnings online.
The intention of most people issuing these warnings is usually well-meaning. But the failure of people to identify the hoax, even by those who should have expert insight into whether children really are in danger, helps to create a problem where none really existed. And it’s likely to be worried parents that are harmed as a result rather than their more digital savvy children.
Reports of suicides linked to the Momo challenge have appeared around the world since July 2018, but without solid evidence that any of the deaths recorded were actually caused by the game. Attention on the story has grown and recently took off in the British press after a mother posted a warning about it on her local Facebook group. She’d not seen any actual evidence of the game but had researched it after her son heard rumours about it at school and watched videos about it online.
It wasn’t just the media and parents that were sucked in, however. Children’s charities have criticised schools for warning parents about the challenge, and an MP raised the issue in parliament after being contacted by worried parents. Even the police were not immune from getting swept up in the panic, with several forces issuing dire warnings about Momo.