The “Momo Challenge,” it turns out, was a huge viral hoax spawned on social media, spread by news organizations, stoked by schools and community organizations, and gobbled up by freaked out parents. To date, there have been no credible reports of a bugged-eyed monster instructing kids to complete increasingly dangerous tasks via WhatsApp, YouTube, or any other social media network. Albeit creepy, “Momo” is simply a sculpture created by artist Keisuke Aisawa for a Japanese special-effects company called Link Factory. As of last Friday, parents everywhere were advised to breathe a huge sigh of relief and go back about their business.
But maybe not so fast.
While the media and parents were transfixed by the “Momo”-scare, three very real and arguably scarier Internet dangers flew entirely under the radar last week.
Soft Porn and Other Problems on YouTube.
A former YouTube content creator by the name of Matt Watson posted a video on Reddit that exposed a “wormhole into a softcore pedophile ring” on the video-sharing site. According to Watson, with just a few clicks, users could easily locate videos of children that were laden with provocative and inappropriate comments. Some comments even timestamped certain parts of the video that sexualized minors and a network of pedophiles were communicating with one another via these comment streams. Some prominent YouTube advertisers, like Epic Games (the makers of Fortnite), quickly pulled their ads from the site. The video giant, to its credit, took swift action—disabling the comments from “tens of millions of videos that could be subject to predatory behavior.” It also announced it would disable any future comments on videos featuring children and strengthen algorithms that would detect inappropriate content.
And as if that were not enough bad news for YouTube, a parenting blog called pediamom.com, and later the Washington Post, reported that instructions on how to commit suicide were spliced smack into the middle of a cartoon on YouTube Kids. Yes you read that right. This scare, which appears to be legitimate, underscores that young children should not be watching anything online unsupervised.
TikTok’s Record Fine for Violating the Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
The popular app, formerly known as Musical.ly, got caught red-handed for collecting the personal information of users under the age of 13 (COPPA requires that apps and websites get parental approval for users under 13). It has agreed to pay a whopping fine of $5.7 million. This app is beloved by kids, especially young ones, because they can make and share music videos that they dance and sing along to. In order to comply with COPPA, TikTok will now require users to enter their birthdate if they want to use the app (are you, like me, wondering why this was not already a requirement?). This means that children under 13 will have to figure out how to make themselves appear to be at least 13 years of age. But don’t worry about them. Millions of kids have had plenty of practice doing this already on Instagram and SnapChat. Today's kids don't seem to have a problem with simple math. But telling the truth online? That's a problem.
THE Scariest Thing of All?
Of all the scary online events of last week, this one should leave us shaking in our boots:
Our concerning inability to detect online misinformation and our eagerness to share it.
Everyone—media outlets (large and small), schools, community organizations, and parent groups—got caught up on the “Momo” frenzy without first taking a moment to carefully question and analyze sources of information. Worse, by sharing news of the scare so quickly and remarkably proficiently, we gave “Momo” the legs she needed. This week it is nearly impossible to find a kid who hasn’t seen or heard about “Momo.” Undoubtedly, many of these kids are now sharing their own “Momo”-inspired memes and posts online, thanks entirely to us, and that’s a crying shame.
Let’s not forget…the Internet offers tremendous benefits: unparalleled access to information, connection to friends and family, and access to educational opportunities, just for starters. But, as last week showed us, it is still fraught with problems. Young kids left alone with their devices are not well-equipped to enjoy the positives and avoid the negatives. They need our help. Parents must know what their offspring are doing online so they can help them navigate the online world safely and wisely.
And we could ALL use some media literacy lessons.
Diana Graber is the author of “Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology” (HarperCollins Leadership) and is the founder of Cyber Civics.com and Cyberwise.org, organizations that advocate for digital literacy for kids and adults. She resides in Southern California.