My nine-year-old daughter went to school camp to learn about the great outdoors and came home with a valuable lesson in cyber bullying.
The kids at her camp were talking about “Momo”, an evil-looking Manga-like character with contorted bird-like features who is said to have supernatural powers to possess and even kill children.
Momo (a character based on a Japanese fright sculpture created by an animation company) has given rise to the “Momo Challenge” which first made international news in the middle of last year.
It involves cyber predators in the guise of "Momo", contacting children through applications such as WhatsApp and other social media platforms and instructing them to self-harm or suicide.
If children don’t do as instructed, they are told that Momo will harm them or a family member. According to the urban legend my daughter learned from her school mates, when a girl refused to do what Momo asked, she was found dead in her cupboard. Two child deaths have been linked by police to the child's interaction online with "Momo".
Numerous videos of Momo on YouTube claim she has hypnotic powers and tally her victims, and are accompanied by creepy chants such as “Momo, Momo, Momo’s going to kill you”.
There have been several cases of families and friends blaming the Momo Challenge for children’s suicides, however there are no official reports of casualties.
As far as I know, none of my daughter’s friends have been contacted by anyone claiming to be Momo. But many of them were understandably shaken and upset by the idea of a malign character who could control and kill them at will.
The incident is a reminder of the challenges parents face in protecting their children from online predators. We can diligently monitor our kids’ screen usage but all it takes is one child with an older sibling and a mobile phone and the whole group of kids is exposed.
The internet is such a pervasive part of our children’s lives that it follows them everywhere they go — even when they’re in a remote setting, with no direct access to devices or the internet.
Nevertheless, there are things we can do to take a pre-emptive strike against these kinds of threats.
The first is to encourage kids talk about what’s worrying them — and praise them when they do. If our kids don’t tell us what’s going on, we can’t help them. My husband and I used the Momo incident as a “teachable moment”. We congratulated our daughter for her courage and honesty in confiding in us, and we reiterated that she can tell us anything and we will always help her.
One of my friends whose son was also on camp used the Momo experience to remind her son, “There is not anything you can do or tell me that I can’t forgive.”
Another precaution we can take is to make sure our kids have someone to confide in who isn’t us. A common tactic of predators — both online and off — is scaring kids into not telling their parents. Kids also withhold information from their parents because they are worried they might get into trouble.
For these situations enlist in a trusted aunty, godparent or close friend to provide confidential non-judgmental advice to your child. I have two trusted friends who have agreed to act as confidantes to my daughter. My daughter knows that she can contact either woman at any time for advice and no matter what she tells them, she will not get in trouble, and if requested, these confidantes will not tell me.
Of course, if it’s serious, my friends will encourage my daughter to tell me what’s going on. But if she doesn’t want me to know, then my friends have promised to keep it confidential. I hope this arrangement will give my daughter the courage to speak to a trusted adult rather than deal with big problems on her own.
The other step we can take to help protect our children is to build a network of parents to share information.
When my daughter told me about Momo, I posted it to a closed Facebook group of school parents which prompted phone calls and messages by parents who were then able to get a clearer picture of what had happened, as some had noticed their children's strange moods post-camp. The parents of children who hadn’t yet confided in them were able to raise the subject with their child.
If nine-year-olds can be affected by cyber-bullying in the middle of nowhere on school camp, it can happen to anyone, anywhere. We need to work together to keep all our kids safe.