Over the course of this week I, along with many parents of young children, have gotten some pretty disturbing information about a character called “Momo” who is supposedly appearing in videos geared towards children on YouTube and YouTube kids. Depending on the account you read, the character (a spooky looking image based on a Japanese statue with large eyes, chicken feet, and stringy black hair) either appears in the middle of the cartoon and encourages children to harm themselves, harm others, kill their families, and even kill themselves.
This is spooky and terrifying stuff! I have two young kids, one of whom loves to watch toy unboxing videos and video game streams on YouTube Kids. I don’t want them exposed to this kind of garbage!
But here’s the deal…stuff like this has been around for a long time. YouTube is full of extremely nasty content of many different forms. YouTube Kids is better, but stuff still gets through their filters. Some sources state that nearly 1 in 4 children have inadvertently seen pornography on the internet.
Chain letters that threatened harm and bad fortune if you didn’t send a copy to 8 of your friends within 24 hours were around long before YouTube. Chain emails came next. Stupid viral challenges come and go. (Remember Tide Pods?) The difference now is that kids have more and more opportunities to interact online and participate in social media and the digital world.
The dangers now are more visual, more persistent, and available at a younger and younger age.
We as adults must remember that if these images are appearing in children’s videos, they aren’t appearing there as a result of some sinister magic or evil spirit. They’re being deliberately put there by people intent on spreading fear and hysteria among adults and children alike. Ironically, there are probably MORE examples of the Momo character being inserted into hijacked Peppa Pig videos in the last few days than there were before, as a direct result of the viral sharing that has been going on about the supposed danger.
So I’m not freaking out about a fictional character named Momo, just as I’m not going to freak out about the BoogeyMan, or ghosts, or TidePod challenges, or bumps in the night (well…maybe the BoogeyMan).
Instead, I’ve already started doing what experts recommend: talking to my children in age appropriate terms about being safe online and in their digital dealings.
This evening we had a discussion where I asked my oldest if he had ever seen anything online or on YouTube that was scary or had frightened him. I deliberately did NOT show him the Momo image or ask him if he had heard about it, as I wanted to hear an unprompted answer. He looked a little annoyed at me, and assured me that he had not seen anything scary in his toy unboxing videos. Then we talked about what he would do if he ever did see something that scared him online (turn it off, come tell mom and dad). We also talked about how you don’t need to believe everything that you see on the internet, because lots of it is just not true.
While I’d love to box my kids up and keep them from being exposed to all the horrors and dangers of the internet and beyond, I recognize that in this day and age it just isn’t possible. If they don’t interact with YouTube at home, they might at school, or at a friend’s house, or talk with others who have seen content that I would find objectionable.
So I’m choosing not to participate in the hysteria of Momo.
I’m not sharing the warnings on Facebook, and I’m not showing my kids the image of Momo. If they bring it up, we’ll talk about it then. But I will recognize that, like it or not, we live in a digital age. Just like it was part of my parents’ responsibility to teach me how to use a pay phone to call home in an emergency, it is part of my responsibility to equip my kids to be good digital citizens, staying safe in the physical as well as the virtual world.
5 Ways to Keep your Kids Safe Online
- Choose age appropriate content to allow your children to view. Decide together as a family which sites will be allowed in your home and on your devices. Involve your children (if they are old enough) in this discussion.
- Use parental controls on sites such as YouTube Kids to allow only approved content to be viewed.
- Talk with your kids about cyber bullies, fake news, and internet trolls. Tell them that mean, bad, and untrue things exist on the internet. Let them know that if they are being bothered by someone or something online that they can and should tell a trusted adult immediately.
- Keep an eye on your child’s mental health. Kids who are already experiencing anxiety or depression may be more prone to be affected by internet dangers.
- Keep tablets, computers, and anything connected to the internet in public spaces and in full view of others. Know what your kids are looking at online. Watch with them. No matter how many filters, parental controls, and passwords you have, there is really no substitute for good old fashioned supervision.
References for keeping kids and teens safe online