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'Disturbing' self-harm trend on rise

By Norwalk Reflector staff • Updated Mar 1, 2019 at 10:17 AM

A social media game involving dangerous challenges, threatening phone messages and a bird-girl sculpture has caught the attention of concerned parents and authorities.

The "Momo Challenge" is described as a social media game or a viral scare and combines threatening messages and images sent to youth with challenges to complete dangerous or destructive acts. These “challenges” sometimes begin with a notification on a social media network such as Facebook or WhatsApp or by popping up in the midst of an otherwise normal YouTube video, inviting the viewer to message “Momo.”

Challenges start out simple and seemingly insignificant, such as waking up in the middle of the night, Fox 8 reported, but then progress to more dangerous, even violent challenges — detailed self harming or even suicide and murder, according to some reports, with requests for photos for proof.

If the challenges aren’t completed, the account claims it will cast a curse on the recipient, or according to some reports, will post personal information online or harm or kill the recipients or their family. “Momo” will send disturbing and gruesome messages, videos and voice recordings in an attempt to intimidate the recipient into recording themselves following through on the challenges.

The Momo Challenge icon is an image, called Mother Bird, depicting a distorted face with stringy black hair, bulging eyes, flared nostrils and an angular, toothless smile. It is believed to have adapted from a sculpture created by an artist from the Japanese special effects company called Link Factory.

Now the game seems to have taken an unexpectedly disturbing turn by popping up in children’s videos online, even on YouTube Kids. 

The Momo Challenge is prompting law enforcement agencies and school districts around the world to issue warnings to parents.

Local law enforcement agencies have not received reports related to the Momo Challenge.

However, the Greenwich Police Department recently used its Facebook page to post a story and photo about the Momo Challenge, advising parents: “Please be aware.”


How to stop it

To stop the Momo Challenge, the recipient needs to block the number or account sending the messages. 

The Momo Challenge has also been suspected as a strategy for both stealing personal information and implanting malware on electronic devices, according to a blog post written by Anne Collier, the executive director of the Net Safety Collaborative nonprofit organization.

"These things never die totally, I don't think," Collier said. She added that similar messaging trends that become associated with self-harm have also surfaced in recent years.

Receiving threatening messages can make people feel targeted, but that level of intention is not likely, she said. Technology can facilitate mass messaging, including with the "Momo Challenge," which increases the potential that contact is random, Collier said. The same technology also makes it extremely difficult to trace the origin of the messages.

Collier said it's OK to report any related activity to police and she encouraged parents to "cut through the fear" and communicate with their children. "See what they've heard with just honest curiosity. Respect their intelligence and just say 'Hey, if you ever get a creepy thing like this, you know not to reply. And if it scares you in any way, I'm here for you.'"

Erie County Sheriff Paul Sigsworth, who checked with other law enforcement leaders throughout Erie County and children’s services, said there haven’t been any reports in the area and none of them are “aware of any inducements here.” Sigsworth, though, agreed with Collier’s advice.

“I think the concern about suicide among youth is an issue locally, statewide and nationally,” he said. “I think we’re all deeply concerned about that and how it can be prevented. In general I think it’s very, very important too for parents to be with their children and aware of any activity they’re doing online — what they’re seeing, hearing, watching.”

Sigsworth said other advice repeatedly given to parents is to check their search and site history — “whether that’s on their phone or a home computer. You should keep a lookout for anything disturbing or inappropriate.”

Like Collier, though, he said the best defense is to have a good, open communication line with children and teens or any age. 

“If parents, guardians or caregiver see anything disturbing, making sure (kids) know that they can go to them is important,” he said. “They need to know that parents will be understanding and open about anything that’s happening and will listen.

“I understand its almost impossible to (protect and monitor everything) — even if a child is on trusted site something can happen — but if that relationship exists and the children know that they can go to the parent, regardless of the situation, that will help.”


EDITOR’S NOTE:  Mike Kordenbrock, a reporter with the Billings (Mont.) Gazette (TNS), contributed to this story.

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