Back in 2016, a statue called “Mother Bird” designed by a Japanese special effects company, Link Factory, was displayed at the Vanilla Gallery in Tokyo. In another world, you’d probably never have heard anything about “Mother Bird.” No offense to its creators. But for reasons I can only explain as “because the internet,” the bird — with its eerie eyes and strange proportions — took on another life online. It’s now known as Momo, a creepy internet meme paired with so-called “challenges” — essentially dares ranging from silly things to self-harm — sent via WhatsApp and Facebook. The gist is you have to do whatever Momo — or, really, the person sending you the Momo image — says, or else Momo will come for you and your family and curse you. The final step in the process is, according to urban legend, killing yourself and filming it.
In 2018, a 12-year-old girl in Argentina died by suicide, hanging herself in her family’s backyard. Some reports claimed the girl took her own life as part of the Momo challenge. This was never confirmed, and there have been no deaths in the United States connected to the meme. Which makes it a little strange that we’re once again talking about Momo in 2019. Strange, but given the way the web works, not that surprising.
Often, viral online panic gets a second life. A recent example: in 2018, headlines all over the place declared that kids were once again snorting condoms up their noses as part of the “Condom Challenge.” Spoiler: they weren’t. The Condom Challenge was a fleeting viral stunt performed by a number of YouTubers in 2013 and, for some reason, people decided to start worrying about it again five years later with no evidence of its recurring. That’s what’s happening this week with Momo, which first reemerged in the U.K. and has since made its way across the pond.
Much like the Condom Challenge, there seems to be no clear origin point for the return of Momo. A Facebook post, subsequently also shared on Twitter, claims that Momo is back and being hidden inside seemingly innocuous YouTube videos to lure children to hurt themselves. (A recent report from the Washington Post highlighted videos in which clips of suicide instructions were spliced into children’s videos on the platform.) But the post does not contain any links to such videos. And none of the news outlets reporting on the so-called trend have been able to point to any either. (A cursory search led me to many clips warning against these videos, but no actual examples.)
In a segment from WPTV News in Florida, newscasters attempt to explain Momo, inaccurately identifying it as the “latest trend” and pivoting to methods for talking to your kids about safe online behavior. “If you see this on your kid’s phone, there’s no good coming from that,” a “technology expert” explains, pointing at ASL — short for Age/Sex/Location — from a list of internet acronyms. That’s useful information, but it has effectively nothing to do with Momo. Police in Northern Ireland attribute the return of the challenge to “hackers looking for personal info.” This is also unlikely.
There are so many actual things to worry about when it comes to keeping kids safe online. Last week, YouTube deleted hundreds of channels and millions of comments in an attempt to combat the child predation problem it has had for years. There are channels devoted to creating videos that look just like cartoons kids watch — think Peppa Pig — but instead contain twisted and violent content. The list goes on and on. Momo is not on it.
Updated, 6:34 p.m.: YouTube published a statement regarding Momo content. “After much review, we’ve seen no recent evidence of videos promoting the Momo Challenge on YouTube. Videos encouraging harmful and dangerous challenges are clearly against our policies, the Momo challenge included. Despite press reports of this challenge surfacing, we haven’t had any recent links flagged or shared with us from YouTube that violate our Community Guidelines.” The statement also noted that images of Momo are not against YouTube Terms of Service, but they are banned from YouTube Kids, the platform’s app for children.