Managing the Momo Monsters.
As many of you may have been made aware, a new parenting nightmare has gone viral. Fear spreads so quickly doesn’t it?
The Momo challenge.
For those who may not be aware the Momo challenge is supposed to be a hidden challenged secretly edited into the middle of children’s videos (said to be contained within videos such as Peppa Pig, Paw Patrol, and the like). Halfway through these videos, an image of a grotesque, bug-eyed, birdlike, womanish creature appears on screen, encouraging your child to engage in very risky behaviour. It is said that some of these behaviours include turning on ovens at night, stabbing people with knives, and committing suicide (the particulars range of acts known vary depending on the source of information about the challenge).
This is a terrifying notion, and sadly not at all uncommon or new. There have been similar challenges in the past, hidden within the bowels of social media. The Blue Whale challenge is said to date back to 2016, slowly grooming young teens/tweens to commit suicide via a 50 day challenge within a private Facebook group or page. Likewise grotesque, distressing, and violent images and dialogue is not new in children’s videos of apps either. Disney and superhero videos where the characters engage in inappropriate conduct have been found, as well as many inappropriate edited Peppa Pig and Paw Patrol vidoes. Google banned a children’s app last year due to its violent suggestions and demands, an app aimed at small children with a talking car based on a character from a popular game. Likewise apps such a music.ly are known for their bullying, and pro self-harm videos, and for its easy access to children for predators.
The internet is not a safe place.
Just because an app, video, or game appears to be made for children, we cannot be guaranteed their safety as parents. It is no different to foods really, how many foods are labelled with “natural,” or “healthy” and aimed at children? Yet they are full of sugar. There was a very popular drink, a few years back, being marketed as full of vitamin C from blackcurrants, and it was complete hogwash. Just take a look at the information grid on these foods (especially under the carbohydrate section) and you’ll see how “healthy” they really are. But even if we know, as parents, what is in the food we give our children, we can never really know what is in an app, video, or game, unless we access all of it, and it’ secrets, for ourselves. So what can we do?
First of all, I imagine the most pressing issue for parents, given this current awareness, is knowing just what their children have actually seen. To do this I recommend a few things.
The best place to start would be to look at your child’s video history, and what apps they are currently accessing. This will give you the best insight.
Next would be to have a conversation. Depending on the age of your child, the way the topic is presented will change. For instance, if you have allowed your three year old unsupervised access to videos, then you may want to raise it in a gentle way. Something like “I was looking at something on the internet today, and I saw that sometimes children’s videos have some scary things in them. I was wondering, have you seen anything scary, or that makes you feel really yucky and confused, in your paw patrol/peppa/etc. videos?”
Lastly, would be to reflect on behaviour. If there have been no other major changes in your life (e.g. moving house, starting a job, separating from your partner, starting school, having another baby etc.) which will all impact on your child’s behaviour, but your child is all of a sudden acting very differently, then this is an indication that something is going on. It could be a video, app, or game, but it may also be something else (even developmental) so take this one under advisment. Checking in with your children daily about their day, what they liked, what they didn’t like, things that made them frustrated, things they learned, and so on, can be very helpful for opening up a dialogue about what is happening in their lives and how they feel about it. This one is not full proof of course, because it COULD be something else, such as having a fight with their best friend, but unless the dialogue and relationship isn’t there, then those conversations will be difficult to have. However, it is never too late to introduce them. Relationship is key.
Once you have done those things you may be relieved that your child hasn’t seen/heard anything to fear, or you may discover the opposite. Below I will share some suggestions around minimising risk to exposure, and then lastly how to support our children if they do experience something distressing.
Move away from apps, as much as possible.
This is much harder for older children of course, and there are some great ways to manage that with things such as social media contracts, open door policies, having computers/tablets only used in the common areas of the house, loving limits around time, and so on.
With younger children this can be managed a little easier.
Yes, some parent’s choose to use videos for some down time, and that is understandable. For the sake of sanity, a half hour of videos can make all the difference. However, this can be achieved in ways that do not require apps, or even the internet. Here are some practical ideas:
- Use only paid video providers such as Netflix or Stan. This way what you are getting will only be videos submitted by the actual producers and companies with creative licensing and rights. These are not illegally copied, edited, uploaded, and streamed, and therefor pose less risk.
- Use only paid apps, if you are happy for your children to play games, and always check reviews thoroughly before giving access.
- Avoid all social media based apps and games.
- Go old-school and use a DVD player, and avoid the internet completely.
Don’t buy into the idea that screens are educational.
It is easy to be convinced of the notion that screens are educational for children, or that there is such thing as educational shows. There are not, the research is extensive in this, and the negative outcomes far outweigh any of the supposed positives, for developing brains. It may be possible to use shows and movies for educational purpose with teenagers or tweens, of course, facilitating constructive and thought provoking discussions, but not with small children. Their brain is simply not developed enough.
Often parents need to convince themselves of the benefits of educational apps and videos for a few reasons. They may feel worried that their child will be left behind, or they may be needing down time but feel subconsciously guilty, so in the hopes of feeling better about using screens the “educational” lie can be quite alluring. But again, if you need to use screens for some peace, that is ok. A child is much better off with a sane parent, and a tiny amount of screen time, than no screen time, and a parent who is highly stressed, reactive, and overwhelmed.
Instead of using screens for “educational” purposes here are some things you may like instead:
- STEM based activities. These can be found at Kmart, Officeworks, and you can even subscribe to delivery based, and age specific, STEM activity services online.
- Let your children get bored, and send them outside. Boredom is a HUGE catalyst for fostering creativity, developing intrinsic motivation, experimentation, and more.
- Get out of the house and do something together, explore, go for a walk, take a look around your neighbourhood.
- Play! Anyone familiar with my work will know that I am big on play (naturally as a Play Therapist), and this is the single most educational pursuit of a child. Not play from an app that gives immediate results, the play that captures all the senses. The feel of textures, the smells of craft resources and books, the balance required for climbing and swinging, looking at every piece of the puzzle to see where it fits, and working it out. And doing it with you, well that is ten times better and more supportive of a child’s learning than any app could ever hope to be.
Lastly, talk about sneaky people.
Like “stranger danger” helping children be aware of the potential dangers that are out there is sadly a necessary role of a parent. However, stranger danger can be misleading, and confusing.
Social media apps for instance often refer to anyone you have connected with as a “friend.” This misuse of the term can be very confusing for children, and even subtly manipulative for tweens and teens. Language if a very powerful thing, and it is most certainly something that predator’s online wield. Even the most cautious of us can fall prey to a charming salesman, how much more susceptible can our children be to those with ill intentions, or to these horrible hoaxes.
Moreover, not only is the term “friend” confused online, but the hoaxes and more will often tell children to not tell mum and dad because otherwise *insert horrible consequence here.*
The concept of stranger danger may provide some cognitive protection against the second attack of violent consequences (which children do not realise are lies), but it does little to protect against those who children come to trust as “friends.”
So what can be done instead?
This is where “sneaky people” can be more comprehensive in protecting children against people they, or even we, have come to trust. Of course in this article we are looking at how this helps us navigates issues with online risks, however, I am sure you can see how this would also be supportive in the real world. The basic idea is that we have ongoing conversations with our children about trust, consent, and safety. We talk about what that looks like, and what it feels like. From there the conversation expands to include instances where people might say, do, ask, or even tell us to do things that make us feel scared, confused, or yucky. Adding, that sneaky people may also tell them not to tell mummy or daddy.
The conversation may go something like this “sometimes you might have a friend, who is a kid like you or a big person like mummy and daddy, and this friend can be anybody. But they might not be like other friends, and they might try to make you do things that feel scary, or yucky. What are some things that have made you feel scared or yucky before?” (asking the questions whilst having the conversation helps children to identify the feeling whilst navigating this particular content – creating new neuro pathways of identification). Next You might say “yes, I bet that made you feel yucky; and sometimes when friends make you feel yucky, do you think they are being a kind friend or a not-so-kind friend?” (here we are creating dialogue). Continuing, you might say “right, a not-so-kind friend. And sometimes they may make you feel yucky and try to tell you not to tell me (mummy, daddy, etc.) That is because they are a sneaky person. Sneaky people can be anybody you know, or even someone mummy/daddy knows, but they make your feel yucky or scared, or make you do things that make you feel yucky or scared; and they tell you to keep it a secret. Sneaky people pretend to be friends, but then they hurt us, and that is not ok. I want you to know that mummy/daddy will always believe you if you tell us, and that there are no secrets between us. Ok?”
You may even want to ask if they have any questions.
One article from parenting.com refers to these people as “tricky people” and explains further about how these people may lure children away with pleas for help, and more, in order to “trick” children. I personally prefer the term “sneaky,” as “trick” or “tricky” can be associated with child-like pranks, magic tricks, and so on, and again, due to the complexities of language, may be confusing. However, that is a personal choice.
After children, and we, have experienced these kinds of events we need a way of making sense of, and processing, the experience. For adults that often takes the form of some kind of counselling or therapy, depending on the severity. For children and teens therapy can also be beneficial (again depending on severity), but may not be necessary. If, for instance, you found that your five year old has in fact seen momo, only once, or some other form of distressing imagery, in a video; then there are ways to help him make sense of it, process it, and move forward.
The first point of call, is to listen to his feelings when he has any kind of meltdown, tantrum, or refusal to sleep etc. where tears are present. It may be something that is completely unrelated, but children, by virtue of their age and neurological development, are not able to conceptualise and communicate what is happening to them from having those experiences. Instead they need, what I call, “the funnel and the container.”
The funnel is any focal point that can be used to direct emotions towards, wihout focussing on what is “really going on.” It may be helpful to think of it as “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” In Aware Parenting, created by Aletha Solter Ph.D. it is called “the broken cookie phenomenon,” it is named so because of the primary example of a literal broken cookie. A child wants a cookie, there is only one left and it is broken, the child reacts disproportionately and wails in heartbreak. It isn’t really about the cookie; that is just the funnel, or the focal point, for him to focus his big feelings through. However, just like with an actual funnel and liquid, it is no good to use it without the container. That is where you come in, you provide the loving container for his big feelings to funnel into.
How do you do that?
By listening and empathically responding. He doesn’t need analysis, in fact that would be unwise and counterproductive, he just needs to feel heard. It may be that he becomes incredibly upset all of a sudden because he can’t find a toy that he hasn’t played with in over six months. He wails because he “can’t find it.” He may even make comments such as “what if it’s broken?” Which may be reflecting his worries from images he has seen online. That is ok! Take heart. In fact, it is what we want in order for him to make sense of it, and get it out. This is where you can just listen and empathically reflect. You may come close and hug him, saying something like “oh sweetheart, you are so worried and upset. You can’t find your truck and you think it might be broken. You’re really worried and scared. I am here, I won’t leave you alone with these big feelings.” As he cries and wails, you can repeat what you hear/see he is feeling, you may even comment on his trembling, or his heartrate, helping him to identify how those feelings sit in his body. By doing this, he can begin to express those feelings of fears and concerns that were generated by the content online.
As he begins to release those feelings, and his tears have subsided (which may take considerable time especially if he hasn’t had much opportunity to cry without distraction previously), you can then wait and see how to move forward.
Next, you may like to engage in a game.
Playing a game, e.g. a treasure hunt for the truck (this would be best done if you know where it is, and are likely to find it). When you find it, you could then play the game again. Being as ridiculous and over the top as possible. The more your child laughs the better. This is the other side of the healing coin. By getting close to a like stimulus (his toy being “missing” representing his fears) but safe enough because he is with you, and knows you will both find his toy; your child is able to process these experiences previously had, through the naturally therapeutic process of play and laughter.
If you are unsure where the truck/toy may actually be, you may simply sit with your child until they reach their own natural turning point. They may want to do something else entirely once having a cry, or they may ask if you know where it is, you can then look together, and maybe have a more natural conversation about sometimes losing things accidentally, and that that is ok, and it may turn up again later.
These emotional displays/release may happen for some time until your child feels they have dealt with their fear (note these happen in reponce to any major changes, trials, trauma’s, and stressors).
Playing games both afterwards, and at other times, that may be related to things such as separation/reconciliation, being sick and getting better, and power-reversals will aid your child in moving through these experiences more quickly and effectively as well.
As a note, due to the effects of screens, children often display aggressive, demanding, and exasperated behaviours. This is a common experience of screens because they undermine a childs ability to entertain themselves, and the development of their attention/staying power; and as such children react. It may not be that they have seen something distressing during that session of gaming/watching tv. However the more screen time they have, the more these behaviours arise, and so it is important to be aware that screens come with challenging behaviours as a bi-product.
The online world can be a scary place for everyone, and safety is a value we all have, and we can only do the best with what we know. I hope this article has helped you know a little bit more, so that navigating this technology based reality is a little less daunting.