The Momo Challenge is the latest internet boogieman to have parents clutching their pearls as they struggle to keep up with what our kids are up to online.
Momo is a hoax, the result of panicky parents and sensationalistic local TV news reports taking internet memes out of context. There is no creature appearing in the middle of YouTube videos instructing children to commit suicide. And while it’s true images of Momo have been circulating online for more than a year, there have been no credible accounts of children being influenced by Momo to date.
The situation exemplifies the perils — both real and imagined — of parenting in the digital age. Hoaxes like this are believable because they highlight anxieties about our permissiveness in letting our children roam online spaces unattended. Over the last decade, we have used the internet, and the devices through which we access it, as a pacifier for our children. It keeps them quiet, it gives us a moment’s peace, it can even be educational. But without adequate supervision, it potentially exposes children to world of danger.
“If you take kids to the park and you stand 3 feet away from them, you should stand 3 feet away while they’re on YouTube,” cybereducation consultant Lori Getz told BuzzFeed News in a recent story about Momo.
The internet, being a formless electronic space, is harder for us to conceptualize in such concrete terms. We can see the danger in the park; however, those threats are harder to spot online. We don’t know where they will appear or what they look like. When they do, we panic because we don’t know how else to respond.
On a deeper level, Momo upsets us because it makes us insecure about our deficiencies in online literacy. As adult media consumers, most of us are woefully lacking in our understanding of how to navigate the web and engage the information we encounter within it. We consistently take information out of context, fail at discerning truth from fiction, irresponsibly shirk privacy concerns and foolishly assume tech companies have our best interests in mind.
As John Herrman said in a New York Times analysis of the Momo panic, “A clip that puts children into a trance and seems to program them to do or say things? That’s not a clip in the middle of a Peppa Pig video — that’s the Peppa Pig video itself. A third party contacting a wide-eyed viewer with instructions to do something in the real world? That’s not a killer pretending to be Momo. That’s how advertising works on YouTube.”
But if we fail at being sufficiently critical of such aspects of the web, how can we expect our children to be any better?
We talk a lot about the amount of time children spend in front of screens and fret about how, for better or worse, it might be rewiring their brains, but we stop short of confronting the bigger concern of leaving them unattended in online spaces without the intellectual foundation to safely and responsibly exist within them.
It is essential that we teach good online literacy to young people. In a perfect world, school districts would have the funds and motivation to implement a progressive digital literacy curriculum that teaches students how to properly navigate the Web. From an early age, the curriculum would impart vital knowledge about important key aspects of the online experience, including stranger danger, screen time, inappropriate content, cyberbullying, textual analysis, media management, technical knowledge and academic research. It’s a big ask of educators, who are already overworked and underpaid, but we are doing children a disservice by not teaching this skill.
Parents should be coequal partners in this effort. At home, they should reinforce good online habits, monitor usage and talk to their children about what they are encountering. Ideally, schools would even offer online literacy workshops for parents and teachers so they can keep up with the ever changing and often intimidating online landscape. Lacking a formal curriculum, adults can and should be more proactive in imparting some basic online literacy skills.
The panic we saw with Momo only succeeds in isolating kids from adults. Such overreactions expose how little adults understand — or how little they are willing to understand — about the internet, and ultimately erodes their credibility in the eyes of children. Our digital illiteracy is letting our children down. Together we must strive to expand our knowledge and give children the tools they need so we may all become better online citizens.