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‘Momo challenge’: How parents can deal with internet hoaxes

/ 07:13 AM March 03, 2019

The latest parental panic on social media over a purported challenge for kids to complete harmful tasks elevates the importance of establishing an open dialogue with children and taking advantage of online parental controls.

Warnings about the “Momo challenge” swept Facebook and other social media in recent days, as parents worried about purported videos that encourage children to hurt themselves or do other harmful tasks, such as turning on stoves without telling their parents.

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The parental warnings were accompanied by a disturbing image of a grinning creature with matted hair and bulging eyes.

But the challenge is believed to be a hoax. It’s unclear how many videos exist or to what extent they have circulated, among children or elsewhere.

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Even the Philippine National Police Anti-Cybercrime Group (ACG) has dismissed the online challenge as a hoax meant to cause fears among parents.

But the country’s cybercops reminded parents to remain vigilant about their children’s online activities.

Case of moral panic

In a statement, the ACG said  “authorities have yet to find a link between the trending ‘suicide game’” and reported cases of children killing themselves or getting killed in Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Europe and recently, even the Philippines.

“Web security experts claim that Momo challenge is likely a case of moral panic and is being sensationalized through media reports and social media stories,” said police Brig. Gen. Marni Marcos, the ACG director.

The image of the grinning “Mother Bird” sculpture reportedly came from a Japanese special effects company Link Factory.

Fact-checking site Snopes says the challenge first appeared in mid-2018 linked to suicide reports without actual evidence. It purportedly messages children and tells them to do a series of challenges ending in suicide.

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So why the panic? Experts say internet hoaxes focused on children tap into fears that parents have about protecting their children online and elsewhere.

In addition to anxiety about “screen time” in general, there is certainly plenty of problematic videos that children shouldn’t watch. It’s hard for parents to police everything children do online.

Fears were compounded when some school systems, local media and even police sent out their own warnings, accompanied by fuzzy facts.

“All moral panics feed on some degree of reality, but then they get blown out of proportion,” said Steve Jones, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

Echoes of other panics

These hoaxes echo panics from decades past, like the false belief in the 1980s that teenagers were hearing Satanic messages in rock song lyrics, he said.

“Once the internet is involved in the mix, things get speeded up and they get more widespread,” Jones said.

The most important thing parents can do is to establish an open dialogue with their children about what they’re seeing online and hearing from other children, said Jill Murphy, editor in chief at Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group focused on kids’ use of media and technology.

“Parents are increasingly frustrated with feeling surprised or caught off guard by what is being put in front of their kids,” she said.

Whether the “challenges” are real or not, Murphy said, “they elevate the idea that they may or may not know what their kids are absorbing through these platforms.”

That’s why talking to children is important, she said. “Take the right time to have an age-appropriate conversation, and help your kids understand not everything on the internet is real.”

Most web browsers can block certain websites, limit what children can see and provide a report about what sites a child visited. Smartphones and tablets can limit screen time and access to apps. YouTube Kids lets parents disable search and turn off “autoplay.”

Search the online hoaxes

Another option is to download apps from shows or channels directly rather than going through streaming services such as YouTube.

And though it may seem contradictory, going online to research the hoaxes can also help parents.

The Momo hoax was debunked fairly quickly after people questioned it, Jones said. Give weight to trusted news sources and fact-checking sites like Snopes.com. —Reports from AP and Jaymee T. Gamil

TOPICS: internet hoaxes, Momo challenge
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