What you need to know about YouTube’s MOMO PROBLEM
This morning, while talking to a class of college students about best practices in résumés, I received a series of text messages from a very dear friend:
I didn’t even have to click the image to know what we were talking about: the two oversized eyeballs and the bloody background were clue enough. It was Momo and the Momo Challenge, the latest part of a series of internet troll shock stunts. But for an internet troll stunt to make it all the way to one of my friends, it must be getting some general traction… and a quick Google search reveals that it definitely is.
1.2 million articles is… a lot of articles… and browsing through them, a lot of them have frankly bad information. The Momo thing isn’t new; it’s been going on since about 2016, and its appearance on the mainstream stage is only fairly recent due to the ‘challenge’ sneaking onto the YouTube Kids app. But what the hell is this thing? What are the components of it? Is YouTube safe for your kids?
Good news. I’m a dedicated child of the internet who happens to follow ‘internet culture’ pretty closely, so I’m more qualified to help you out than 90% of the tech writers who were given an assignment earlier today and are now rushing to figure out the trend. So let me help.
WTF IS A MOMO
The thing known as Momo started life in 2016 as a sculpture by Japanese SFX production house Link Factory. The monster was called Guai Bird, and was designed as part of a line of ‘modern interpretations of classic monsters’. The piece is absolutely unsettling looking, with the oversized, birdlike features, and existed on the internet for a short period of time as a curiosity at a museum show.
Eventually, internet trolls found the photographs and, as internet trolls do, began to concoct a story. A user in Spain began the story by downloading a close-up of a photo of the statue and responding to WhatsApp users as ‘Momo’, an actual, real monster who would attempt to kill you once you’d contacted it.
The idea of Momo isn’t exactly original; after all, internet trolls have attempted to scare normies (i.e. normal people) through technology for years. As technology has evolved, so have they. First it was unsettling pictures, then pop-ups in unexpected videos designed to startle the watcher (called ‘screamers’), and now ultimately, via app technology. That’s all irrelevant except to say that this is not a new problem: rather, it’s an old problem being presented in new ways.
Where the Momo trend (and the Momo Challenge) is different is that a lot of the imagery surrounding Momo tends to be explicitly violent, or encouraging self-harm. This is a pretty distinct difference from other internet shock trends, and tends to stem from one particular source of ‘comedy’ on the internet.
FILTHY FRANK AND HARM CULTURE
This is Filthy Frank, one of the most influential content creators to ever appear on YouTube. You probably don’t know him, but any teenager who has spent a decent amount of time on YouTube certainly knows him (or his brand of comedy).
Filthy Frank is a character created by performance artist (you’ll be seeing that occupation a lot) named George Miller, commonly known online as Joji, or Pink Guy. The Filthy Frank character was designed specifically to be all the worst aspects of the internet, combining gross-out humor with a hearty dose of racism, sexism, homophobia, and just about every other terrible thing on the internet. The premise was, ‘This is Filthy Frank. Filthy Frank is a terrible person who does terrible things. Look at the terrible things he’s doing and laugh because he’s so terrible’.
The problem, however, is something that society has increasingly come to realize in the last few years: truly effective satire is indistinguishable from actual behavior by the people it is mocking. It’s like when hardcore conservatives didn’t realize the Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report was a funhouse mirror reflection of their own beliefs, instead mistaking him for a true believer, and ultimately landing him spots on Fox News and the White House Correspondent’s Dinner before they finally realized they were being made fun of. And so it was with Filthy Frank, except that the people who were being mocked… never realized they were being mocked. So thorough was the parody of ‘gross internet person’ that instead of realizing they were being taunted, gross internet people assumed Filthy Frank was real and one of them. This ultimately resulted in George Miller ‘killing off’ the character some time back and instead refocusing his efforts on a music career.
But the damage was done. The Filthy Frank legacy had already grown and spread to other YouTube creators and internet denizens, becoming the new standard for subversive, anti-mainstream humor. After all, Frank’s behavior shocked and offended the average person (and frankly speaking, the wide majority of it is terrible), so the coolest thing to do would be that same type of ‘humor’. But without the satire. Because the internet is braindead.
All of this happens to slam into a larger trend that could be called ‘harm culture’, i.e., the fetishization and mass introduction of self-harm ideas. It’s not surprising; when a large percentage of America’s youth expresses depressive symptoms, eventually dark humor about mortality and death starts to show up and infiltrate conversations and beliefs. A decent chunk of the Filthy Frank output happens to overlap with some degree of harm culture — whether it’s regressive beliefs harming others, or physically harming oneself for entertainment (do a YouTube search on Filthy Frank vomit and see how many times the man intentionally makes himself physically sick), a large portion of the character and internet culture began to turn self-harm into a ‘joke’.
If your child sees self-harm instructions on a YouTube video, it’s probably going to be from a Filthy Frank skit (now taken down off YouTube) where he talks about different ways to kill yourself. I’ve looked through a ton of videos that people have referenced, and in every one of them, it cuts to Filthy Frank telling you to cut your wrists or take pills from the medicine cabinet.
Because the internet’s unlimited capacity for creation sometimes leads to ugly things.
Hell, this whole thing is best exemplified by the Pink Guy/George Miller track ‘Kill Yourself’ which, I’m going to link below, but I’m telling you that you probably shouldn’t watch (and definitely don’t listen to in public).
Now, I’m not arguing this is good art. I’m not even arguing that it’s in good taste. I personally don’t think it is good art or worth examination. But what’s important to take away from here is that the message resonated with someone to the extent that the ideas of ‘ironic self-harm’ began to spread to the rest of the internet. And when it meets a disaffected young person like the Spanish WhatsApp user above, who happens to have a photo of the Momo sculpture… well… here we are.
THE MOMO CHALLENGE
So we know a couple of things: one user decides to ‘freak out’ people he knows on WhatsApp with a frightening photo and gory images, and the darker side of the internet likes to encourage self-harm. But how do those two things make it onto the current YouTube scare?
Well, the role of the internet troll is to upset the general population. And that image, with very clearly antisocial messaging, definitely upsets the normies. And the Momo Challenge was born.
The Momo Challenge is an offshoot of an earlier ‘challenge’ called the Blue Whale Challenge that circulated around the same time Momo was first seen on the internet — that’s why the two of them have combined together here. The Blue Whale Challenge didn’t ever actually exist; it was a ‘creepypasta’ (read: internet horror story) wherein players were asked to play a game that became progressively more dangerous until ultimately they committed suicide. This was done via an anonymous and sinister game master who would direct you from the shadows and was ultimately to blame for your death. But the Blue Whale thing was never actually a real thing; it was a ghost story for the internet age, full of the same bad taste that most folk stories tend to have, amplified across message boards and YouTube channels and Facebook and whatever other site.
Keep in mind, the goal isn’t any degree of genuine self-harm: the goal is to get attention, to upset someone else, and to ‘freak out’ as many people as possible.
The ‘win condition’ is to get you, or your children, to be upset.
And every news article about the Momo Challenge means that the internet trolls have ‘won’.
I personally don’t accept that, so we’re going to go with the classic method of fighting internet trolls: knowledge.
CORRECTING THE RECORD
Most the news articles on the Momo Challenge that I’ve read have been uninformed at best, or grossly irresponsible at best. They’re making some pretty wild claims about how many children have seen Momo videos, or what you need to do to protect your kids. Frankly, it’s all a bunch of hogwash. Let me give you some actual, practical, real-world advice on how to handle this thing.
YouTube isn’t attempting to show your kids any Momo content, let alone on their YouTube Kids app. I mean, obviously, from a brand perspective this whole thing is a nightmare. They have systems in place to prevent your kids from seeing Momo stuff, but the systems are only as good as the humans that interface with them. Each new Momo video is uploaded by an internet troll, tagged as ‘for kids’ (which allows it to enter the YouTube Kids system, an entirely separate problem altogether), and then stays there until it’s manually flagged by a human as unsafe for kids. YouTube’s system is, in theory, working as intended, but mistakes are still being made.
Momo content can’t just ‘appear’ in places like YouTube, Roblox, Fortnite, etc., it has to be placed there via content creation. If someone can make custom content and upload it, they can theoretically make Momo content, but that’s true of all kinds of terrible stuff, like hate speech, pornography, etc., etc.; if it shows up, it’s because it was made by a user, and can be taken down by an administrative team. There’s nothing mystical about it, just people being assholes, as they’re wont to do. Keeping an eye on your kids in any avenue where they can interact with strangers is always a good idea, and this proves why.
Your kids can 100% avoid Momo videos by following a few simple instructions. One, talk to your kids about not clicking random videos on the ‘new videos’ tab. These are videos that haven’t had a chance to be reviewed by the YouTube system, and as such, their content could be anything. Speaking frankly, allowing your kids to blindly click on videos anywhere is a terrible idea, even on apps that are designed to be kid friendly. So have a discussion about recklessly consuming content you don’t already have some experience with. Two, encourage your kids to avoid videos with low subscriber counts or low view counts. If an uploader has three subscribers and less than a hundred video views, you’re in the wild west — this is basically uncharted territory and anything can be out there. That’s not to say that there aren’t small channels that your kids could benefit from, but just watching videos from some random person on YouTube is always a sketchy idea, regardless of what shock trend is going around. Three, teach your kids about ‘related content’, and how to avoid content they don’t want to see. If your kid clicks a video about the Momo Challenge, or any other challenge, it teaches the YouTube algorhythm to show more videos just like that one. So one video about the Momo thing turns into a whole list of recommended videos about the Momo thing, and bam, your kid is in weird territory. If you follow these three rules, you’ll cut down your likelihood of seeing traumatic content on YouTube Kids to less than 1%, I would speculate. You’ve just eliminated the possibility of it being a problem.
Talk to your kids about sketchy internet content, and stay involved in what they’re watching. Tell them that people are making videos encouraging them to do bad things, and that sometimes videos don’t tell us the truth, or give us bad ideas. Teach them to click away from those kinds of videos. And ultimately, stem off the problem by taking an active role in knowing what they’re watching, because if you can see the warning signs coming, they can too.
There is no perfect system to help kids avoid traumatic content, and there never will be. No matter how good the system is, dedicated assholes will attempt to find a way around it, and they’ll succeed. That’s just a fact of life. But the Momo thing should be a learning opportunity to talk to your kids about online content and making good choices, not a scare point to keep them away from technology.
These scumbags will always be around. The sooner your kids know how to navigate that part of the world, the better they’ll be.