Until last week, the only thing my kid was afraid of was insects flying into her face (naturally). Or that I'd try to grill watermelon again. (It WAS gross).
But then she learned about Momo, some creepy muppet-looking thing that supposedly infiltrated one of her favorite places in the world, YouTube.
If you haven't heard about Momo or YouTube, you should probably stop reading this — and get back to the garden in your off-grid utopia. But for the rest of us, what happened with Momo is a telling statement about our strange human psyche.
My daughter had heard about it at school where she was warned about Momo, a creepy character that challenges kids to hurt themselves or turn on the oven without telling their parents.
Supposedly the clips popped up on kids' shows online. And all of the sudden Momo was everywhere in our internet world, complete with warnings that children had been driven to suicide, celebrity railings against YouTube and other sites for not keeping the watch, and faux news police reports about how she’d been caught.
Only there is no her, it, or that. It’s just the latest internet hoax du jour, one that successfully taps into many of our complicated fears. Like that children will do anything the internet challenges them to do.
Take the laundry pod challenge, where teens eat one and upload the video. Some teens actually did it; at least 86 did through January 2018, according to a New York Times story. And the pretty-colored packets are dangerous, as you’re not supposed to eat laundry detergent. But the statistics show by far the issue is with children under 5 who get their hands on them (9,445 did last year according to Poison Control) and older adults with dementia who’ve ingested them by mistake. Neither of these groups sought internet fame for their efforts.
But repetition makes reality.
What fascinates me is how these hoaxes plug into our fears and fascinations at the same time. Fear and fascination of technology. Fear of and fascination with death, with change, with sex, with rebellion, of things we view as outside our culture, of an uncontrollable malevolent evil.
Vulnerable kids presented a mile-wide target for fearmongers, long before the internet made it easy. I was a teen in the satanic lyrics in rock ‘n’ roll era. But what we learned then is the same lesson we learn now — that unchecked fears can lead us like lemmings off a cliff. That we can see things together that aren’t really there, and real people can end up suffering because of it.
Momo is a Japanese “Mother Bird” sculpture, no one has actually died and the craze is a function of influencers and algorithms. The hoax has had several lifespans since the picture was uploaded online in 2016. Perhaps this last iteration chagrined us enough to remember next time someone takes a bellows to the myth and blows it up again. Perhaps not.
Momo did scare my daughter, though, who didn’t grow up with Jim Henson creatures like I did. She sees adults as protectors, and this type of panic evidences our lack of control over ourselves. But it's also a good educational mo-mo about the value in seeking good journalism sources, asking critical questions and recognizing how silly humans are. Until the next time.