The Momo Challenge, an alleged social media-based challenge featuring a bird-like wraith encouraging children to harm themselves, has sparked an internet-based moral panic. Sheriff departments have issued Facebook posts warning parents about it. Schools have sent emails to students about it. Hell, even Kim Kardashian West posted on Instagram about it.
There’s just one problem with the Momo Challenge: it’s not a real thing. As Rolling Stone reported last week, the Momo Challenge is just the latest of a string of creepypasta-inspired internet urban legends that have gained traction due to parental fears about technology, from Slender Man to the more recent Blue Whale Challenge.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the grinning, wraith-like image that inspired Momo came out of a vacuum. The image of “Momo” is actually based on a sculpture by Japanese artist Keisuke Aiso, who initially exhibited it in 2016 at a Tokyo art show. And fortunately for parents (and the rest of humanity at large, I guess), Aiso has finally weighed in on the panic his artwork has inadvertently inspired, revealing in a video interview that the sculpture was destroyed after it was subject to degradation.
Via The Sun, Aiso revealed that the sculpture (which is inspired by the Japanese folk figure the ubume, or bird woman), it didn’t get much attention when he first exhibited it at Toyko’s Vanilla Gallery. So he was shocked when he started seeing reports linking his artwork to a WhatsApp “challenge” that encouraged children to harm themselves.
“When Momo first appeared, it was good in a way that it had received some attention. I was pleased,” he said. “But the way that it has been used now is very unfortunate. People do not know if it is true or not, but apparently the children have been affected and I do feel a little responsible for it. I feel like I am in trouble but it’s all out of my hands.”
Fortunately, Aiso says he threw the rubber sculpture last year after it succumbed to the natural process of degradation. “It doesn’t exist anymore, it was never meant to last,” he said (he does, however, have a rubber mask replica of Momo that his friend made for him). He also issued a message reassuring children who had been spooked by rumors of the “challenge”: “The children can be reassured Momo is dead — she doesn’t exist and the curse is gone.”
As The Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz has reported, rumors of the Momo Challenge first gained traction in the Spanish-speaking world last year, after tabloids started publishing reports that young people had taken their own lives after being encouraged to do so by a ghoulish figure named “Momo.” (These reports are unconfirmed, and none of these deaths have ever been definitively linked to the “challenge.”)
While there is no evidence that the “Momo Challenge” exists, parents have reported that the figure has been spliced into kid-friendly content on YouTube, including a video of Peppa Pig, issuing a rejoinder to children to harm themselves.
Although a clip has been circulating on social media featuring a sing-song voice singing, “Momo is going to kill you” over an image of Aiso’s sculpture, Rolling Stone could not track down an original source for the clip, and requests to the original poster to supply the link went unreturned.
In response to such claims, YouTube issued a statement last week saying, “We’ve seen no recent evidence of videos promoting the Momo Challenge on YouTube.”
We want to clear something up regarding the Momo Challenge: We’ve seen no recent evidence of videos promoting the Momo Challenge on YouTube. Videos encouraging harmful and dangerous challenges are against our policies.
— YouTube (@YouTube) February 27, 2019
None of this is to say, however, that there isn’t a grain of truth to reports of frightening or exploitative content targeted at children on YouTube. It’s well-known that content creators have exploited YouTube’s algorithm to target creepy or downright inappropriate videos at children, including clips of beloved children’s character drinking bleach or committing acts of violence. There have also been reports of pedophiles lurking in YouTube comments sections to post time-stamps of suggestive shots of children in videos.
YouTube appears to be taking these complaints seriously: last week, it issued a statement on its blog saying that it will “begin suspending comments on most videos that feature minors, with the exception of a small number of channels that actively moderate their comments and take additional steps to protect children.” While content creators are not exactly happy about the change, in an email to Rolling Stone a spokesperson for YouTube said, “We understand that comments are an important way creators build and connect with their audiences, [but] we also know that this is the right thing to do to protect the YouTube community.”
As for the rumors of Momo appearing on YouTube, they very well may stem from similar reports of clips of a shock-comedy YouTuber named FilthyFrank being spliced into kid-friendly videos of the Nintendo game Splatoon on YouTube and YouTube Kids, per a viral Facebook post by pediatrician Dr. Free Hess. In the clip, a man is seen saying, “Remember kids, sideways for attention, longways for results,” referring to slitting one’s wrists.
Nonetheless, there’s nothing particularly new about parents freaking out about overhyped reports of harmful social media-based “challenges.” “There’s no real truth to [games like the Momo Challenge] or evidence that it’s a real threat,” Benjamin Radford, a folklorist and research fellow for the Committee for Skeptic Inquiry, told Rolling Stone last week. Radford suggested these phenomena are “part of a moral panic, fueled by parents’ fears in wanting to know what their kids are up to.”
Anyone experiencing a crisis is encouraged to call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741-741.