The internet is an amazing thing. It changed life as we know it and lets us work and communicate more efficiently. It puts the world in our pockets, but it can also put the whole wide world into the palms of very little hands—and that can be scary.
Parents were freaked out this week when news about a supposed viral trend called the "Momo challenge" spread through news reports. The premise is pretty scary: A social media-based dare game that is encouraging kids to harm themselves and even attempt suicide. But as the Atlantic and CNN pointed out, it's not real.
As David Mikkelson, the founder of Snopes.com told CNN, kids are not actually doing harm to themselves or others thanks to Momo (which is actually a Japanese sculpture called Mother Bird) popping up on YouTube and WhatsApp. "That claim appears to be fear-driven exaggeration lacking in supportive evidence," Mikkelson says.
The Momo challenge is not so much a hoax as it is a symptom of internet aggregation culture and the very real fears parents deal with in this digitally connected world.
While the Momo challenge is something of an urban legend for the internet age (it's basically the "Teens are eating Tide pods" of 2019), it's understandable why parents were quick to share warnings.
It's not like bad actors aren't popping up in kids YouTube videos with inappropriate messages encouraging suicide. That's an unfortunately verifiable phenomenon, and YouTube is disabling comments on millions of videos featuring children after Wired reported on how the comments sections "appear to show pedophiles sharing timestamps for parts of the videos where exposed genitals can be seen, or when a child does the splits or lifts up their top to show their nipples."
This Sunday NBC will air an interview with YouTube's CEO Susan Wojcicki on the subject. Wojcicki sat down with TODAY to discuss how YouTube is addressing recent safety concerns. "When we make changes to our policies we usually consult with experts, whether they are experts in child safety, experts in law enforcement, emergency room people, first responders, like understanding where's the best police to draw the line," she tells NBC's Willie Geist.
It's horrible that predators and people who think it's funny to surprise children with disturbing content use the internet this way, and it's also unfortunate that news sites perpetuated reports of the Momo challenge without evidence of its veracity.
But both trending topics serve to remind us of the double edge of the internet: While this technology brings us awesome things like the brand new Jonas Brothes video (yes, the boys are back together and Sophie, Priyanka and Danielle are all in the video!), it can also connect our kids to things we would rather they not see.
According to Common Sense Media (a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping kids thrive in a world of media and technology), parents can act as "media mentors" by using the internet with their kids. Keep internet time safe by playing video games like Fortnite or Minecraft with your kids, and share your favorite YouTube videos.
By acting as something of a digital tour guide and audience, you can show your kids how to stay safe on the internet and learn more about what they are into while instilling safety lessons they will benefit from when they grow older and are eventually allowed unsupervised internet access.
The internet is going to be part of our kids' lives. We can't keep them from it, but we can teach them how to navigate it, and foster the kind of relationships that will have our kids turning to us (instead of the internet) during tough times.