Some children in Northern Ireland have been left “crying in fear” and unable to sleep due to widespread warnings of a nonexistent social media threat called ‘Momo’, it is reported.
The PSNI and NSPCC among others issued public warnings earlier this week, with police advising that the malicious ‘game’ could pop up uninvited on phones or tablets, threatening children that they will be cursed or their family will be hurt if they do not self-harm.
There are reports that some schools have also been sending out warning packs to children and parents.
However the PSNI and NSPCC are now warning that the whole issue was a hoax and that there was never any real threat.
But one mother with two children at a Belfast Primary School contacted the News Letter to say that the official warnings themselves had caused serious distress to her children.
“My children came home from school on Thursday with a booklet about internet safety, sexting and details on the hoax internet challenge, Momo, with the face blurred out,” said the mother, whose name the News Letter is withholding.
“My daughter in P7 knew of Momo, but my son in P3 had been blissfully unaware until he saw the leaflet.
“Whilst I believe it is important to make children aware of internet safety, I think it is equally important that children, especially those in the younger school years, aren’t frightened unnecessarily.
“After receiving the literature my 11-year-old could not get to sleep and other mums, whom I know, have reported their children also being too scared to go to sleep and crying in fear.
“If children are not aware of something like Momo, I believe attention should not be drawn to it. I think it is irresponsible that a headline-grabbing panic, should be perpetuated by schools and thereby cause so much anxiety in children.”
The Department of Education confirmed that it had issued warnings to school after becoming aware of NSPCC warnings.
An east Belfast father of two children, aged seven and five, said their classmates had been having nightmares due to warnings.
“I can see why this has blown up to the size it has,” said Graeme Cousins, a News Letter journalist. “Parents have legitimate fears over internet safety and Momo is a manifestation of those fears. The fact that Momo is being discussed in schools up and down the country is down to the viral nature of social media, and indeed news organisations giving credence to the myth.
“I don’t blame schools for flagging up internet safety in light of Momo, though its true that by giving it so much attention and sharing the image of the Momo mother bird, a monster has been created.
“My two children have been talking a lot about Momo over the past few days and it’s given us the opportunity to reinforce the message of staying safe online. I don’t think either of them have seen a picture of Momo so thankfully it’s not something that has frightened them, but I know of others in their class who have been having nightmares.”
Earlier in the week the PSNI issued a stern warning about Momo.
“This extremely disturbing challenge conceals itself within other harmless looking games or videos played by children and when downloaded, it asks the user to communicate with ‘Momo’ via popular messaging applications such as WhatsApp,” it said. “It is at this point that children are threatened that they will be cursed or their family will be hurt if they do not self-harm.”
When asked for an updated response to parental concerns about the hoax today, the PSNI said their role is to keep people safe online.
Detective Sergeant Elaine McCormill said; “Public Protection Branch work closely with our partners to educate the public about online risks and provide consistent information and advice to keep our young people safe online.
“We cannot stress strongly enough how important it is for parents to speak to their children and young people about being safe online.”
Similarly, the NSPCC had initially issued a comment on the Momo challenge, saying: “The constantly evolving digital world means a steady influx of new apps and games and can be hard for parents to keep track of. That’s why it’s important for parents to talk regularly with children about these apps and games and the potential risks they can be exposed to.”
However the charity’s updated comment today appeared to confirm the matter was a hoax.
A spokeswoman told the News Letter: “The NSPCC said there is no confirmed evidence that the phenomenon is actually posing a threat to British children and said they have received more phone calls about it from members of the media than concerned parents.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said it was aware of the serious initial concerns around the fictional online character known as ‘Momo’ and issued guidance to schools.
“However, we are content that the latest advice from organisations such as the NSPCC that there is no need to be concerned and that indeed this appears to be a hoax.”