In the last two weeks there have been a number of news articles circulating across the media, warning of the dangers of an online ‘suicide challenge’ – Momo. Most news stories have linked the challenge to the apparent suicide of a 12-year old girl in Argentina. Whilst still thankfully rare, online suicide games do raise their ugly heads from time to time. Many turn out to be cruel and evil hoaxes, speedily gaining notoriety by gossip and scaremongering on social media. Tragically, others turn out to be real, and are linked to suicides and episodes of self-harm. Where does Momo sit – real or fake?
What is the Momo Challenge and how does it work?
The Momo challenge is a disturbing online challenge game circulating on WhatsApp. Those users that want to take up the challenge contact the Momo WhatsApp profile by messaging or adding a designated number. There have been several numbers associated with the challenge, one originating in Japan, others in Colombia and Mexico. Once a person has made contact, the creepy avatar controller will call and message the user, setting objectives, challenges and dares. These are potentially based on personal information obtained from a user’s phone. Whilst the challenges are initially simple, they quickly escalate, with the controller harassing and coercing the user to harm themselves, potentially leading to a demand or suggestion that the user should end their life. If the player refuses or fails to respond instructions, the controller will threaten them, often making contact at night.
Where does it originate from?
The Momo controller avatar is a grotesquely disfigured image of a woman with enormous bulging eyes and a large beak-like mouth. This figure was originally created by Japanese doll artist Midori Hayashi, well known for creating dolls related to horror for the Link Factory, a studio specialising in special effects. His sculpture is called Mother Bird and was displayed in a gallery in Tokyo. However, at some point the image of Hayashi’s doll was hijacked and quickly began to spread on social media, with various macabre stories circulating about the monstrous legend of Momo. Several platforms have been credited with its origin, including Instagram and the news aggregate platform Reddit.
Later, the image also became developed into various apps, such as ‘Momo Screamer’ which allows the user to set a timer on their phone, releasing a terrible scream when the timer reaches zero. The aim is to terrify those around you. Another app ‘Momo Button’ has the same intention and rather than scream, it plays the Momo talking creepily. Both are unpleasant apps and you will be hard pressed to find a kind review about either. Like Hayashi’s sculpture , the apps are not linked to the challenge, other than they use the image and the name Momo.
No one knows exactly where the Momo Challenge began. Some say its origins started in Japan, but this appears to be because of the link to the original artist, although neither Hayashi or the Link Factory are associated with the challenge. There have been claims that the challenge started on Facebook before moving to WhatsApp. It does appear to have gained popularity in Spanish speaking countries. There are reports linking it with Mexico, Argentina, but also the United States, France and Germany. At this stage there is no evidence that the ‘challenge’ has gained any degree of popularity in the UK.
What dangers does it pose?
Momo is a disturbing concept. A ‘game’ in which the user is manipulated, controlled and coerced by unknown people to self-harm and undertake dangerous tasks. It is clearly a danger to those that are vulnerable, particularly people who already have existing mental health issues – depression, suicidal thoughts. There is also strong evidence to say that Momo obtains personal information from the user’s phone. There have been several examples where the Momo avatar has known information about the user, which was not freely available. This includes being able to tell the user what they were doing, wearing and holding at the time. Whilst this all adds to the Momo urban myth, realistically it is highly likely that using Momo installs spyware onto the user’s device. The main dangers are:
- Coercive and controlling behaviour
- Violent images including images mutilated children
- Violent, harassing and threatening messages against the user and their family. Momo also threatens a user, that if they don’t do a task, personal information will be made public
- Spyware installed on the device and personal information stolen
Is it real or just fake news?
Online challenges which aim to encourage people to act irresponsibly, are thankfully rare on social media. I first grew interested in these online games, when I was made aware of warnings circulating about a Facebook based challenge – ‘Game 72’. The concept of this particular game was for young people to dare a friend to completely disappear for 72 hours without telling a sole. I incorporated the concept of this challenge into my missing person presentations to senior detectives, for it was a perfect example of how a child with no previous missing experience could “fall off the face of the earth”. Had this game taken a grip in the UK, it would have been a nightmare scenario for parents and law enforcement agencies across the country. However, it quickly became obvious that whilst the concept of Game 72 was very real, the spread of the game amounted nothing to scaremongering across social media platforms. There are no documented cases in the UK that I am aware of.
A more recent ‘game’ was The Blue Whale Challenge, in which an anonymous master challenges people to complete a series of tasks over 50 days, ending in the person taking their own life. The tasks are initially simple but quickly become more and more hazardous. This description is almost identical to Momo. Like Game 72, the Blue Whale Challenge is likely to have been a hoax, circulated by rumour across the web. However, there were unconfirmed reports that it was linked to the deaths of two teenage girls in Russia. This presents a challenge for safeguarding professionals – how can you tell whether a game is a hoax or rumour, and does it really matter? Surely if just one person is harmed or even simply takes up the challenge, then the game ceases to be a rumour and becomes a reality.
I would suggest that we must treat these type of harmful games as potential threats to the vulnerable, whether they turn out to be isolated incidents or go ‘viral’. Whilst the Blue Whale Challenge may have been described as “scaremongering” and “rumour”, if the reports from Russia are true, then the families of the two deceased children won’t see this as a hoax. To them it will be very real and devastating. Whilst the majority of teenagers might view Momo as a bit of fun, there will always be those that are vulnerable and susceptible to the twisted suggestions of others. There is also enough anecdotal evidence available to show that some of these games can spread further than one of two isolated incidents. An example is the ‘Eraser Challenge’ where children were encouraged to use erasers to rub away the skin on their arms, often while reciting the alphabet or other phrases.
At this stage the impact of Momo appears to fall into a few isolated incidents. However, this is no comfort to the family of a 12-year-old girl in Buenos Aires, who was reportedly found hanging in her backyard. Police have potentially linked her death to Momo after they downloaded the child’s phone and accessed her WhatsApp chat and a video. The results suggests she was taking part in and prepared to die for the challenge. The prospect of other fatalities has prompted law enforcement agencies from several countries to issue warnings about the potential dangers of Momo. Whilst I am not aware of any alerts by UK law enforcement agencies, we still need to be wary of the possibility that there may be isolated incidents here. It would be remiss of us to dismiss this or any other self-harm game as a rumour or fake.