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Parents have been discussing the "Momo Challenge" on social media, but many are calling it a hoax and spotlighting other disturbing content aimed at kids

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February 28, 2019 04:00 PM

This story contains discussions about suicide. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “home” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

The “Momo Challenge” has been popping up on headlines left and right — but is it real, what exactly is it purported to be and is it something parents should be really concerned about?

New York magazine describes the idea of the “Challenge” as originating with a Japanese-manufactured statue called “Mother Bird” in 2016, having since resurfaced after reports of messages that popped up in kids’ and teens’ inboxes on Facebook and WhatsApp. It allegedly involves an image of the statue being sent around, instructing kids to commit dangerous stunts and even suicide with threats of violence to the message recipient and/or their families upon non-compliance.

The publication also claims that the “Challenge,” which went viral first in the U.K., has no basis in fact as far as whether it has actually driven children to perform violent acts, explaining that many reports of such videos have not included links to examples as much as anecdotes about their supposed existence.

Many other outlets like The Atlantic and The Guardian seem to be taking a similar narrative, blaming the viral story on panic spread easily online and dubbing it a hoax after concerned parents (even celebrity ones like Kim Kardashian West) took to social media to plead with streaming services like YouTube to make sure their content is safe.

In a Wednesday statement to PEOPLE regarding the rumors surrounding their platform, YouTube said, “Contrary to press reports, we’ve not received any recent evidence of videos showing or promoting the ‘Momo Challenge’ on YouTube. Content of this kind would be in violation of our policies and removed immediately.”

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In a chat with The Guardian, UK Safer Internet Centre‘s harmful content manager Kat Tremlett said that “Even though it’s done with best intentions, publicizing [the ‘Momo Challenge’] has only piqued curiosity among young people.”

“Currently we’re not aware of any verified evidence in this country or beyond linking Momo to suicide,” added a spokesperson for the Samaritans. “What’s more important is parents and people who work with children concentrate on broad online safety guidelines.”

Despite whether the “Momo Challenge” exists, as many parents are claiming (including one California mom who told CBS Sacramento that her 12-year-old daughter, who has autism, encountered the “beyond scary” messages and “could’ve blown up my apartment”), reports of dangerous content being spliced into kids’ videos continue to occur.

As of 2018, YouTube was still struggling to eliminate disturbing videos from their YouTube Kids service that seem, on the surface, highly educational for growing brains. The most well-known example was the viral “Johny Johny Yes Papa” video, which distorted a kids’ music video about not telling lies or eating sugar that starred an animated baby into graphics seemingly inspired by demonic possession.

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Other upsetting clips that, before being taken down, came up “by following recommendations in YouTube’s sidebar or simply allowing children’s videos to autoplay, starting with legitimate content,” per Wired, included violence against children, Peppa Pig eating bacon and PAW Patrol characters attempting suicide.

Various outlets, like Today, are now alleging that many of these types of kid-targeted clips are being spliced with messages that encourage kids to carry out the violent acts themselves (including disturbing details about how to commit suicide), prompting questions from parents about how to handle the situation.

“This is an important reminder to parents that interacting with digital/social media is a life skill that must be learned,” says PEOPLE’s Health Squad pediatrician, Dr. Elizabeth Murray, of the buzz surrounded the “Momo Challenge” and dangerous media on the internet. “We need to look at the safety associated with our child’s online presence in a similar way to teaching them to cross the street or drive a car.”

“There is a large knowledge gap between parents and kids in many households when it comes to social media. Spoiler: The kids know more than the adults!” she adds. “As parents, we need to ensure our child’s safety while at the same time giving them the skills needed to navigate safely [on their own].”

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RELATED: Kim Kardashian Pleads with YouTube to Address Alleged “Momo Challenge” Appearances in Kid Videos

YouTube has taken steps since the problem first emerged to prevent such videos from spreading. In June 2017, the Google-owned company released updated guidelines preventing “content that depicts family entertainment characters engaged in violent, sexual, vile or otherwise inappropriate behavior, even if done for comedic or satirical purposes” from earning any ad revenue.

And a November 2017 blog post promised the site would more strictly enforce community guidelines on YouTube and the kids platform, as well as block inappropriate comments on kid-friendly videos.

But it’s still important for children to be vigilant themselves — and for parents to take defensive action. “The easiest way to start [arming your child] is simply by being present,” Murray tells PEOPLE. “For elementary-school-aged children, they should be on their devices at the kitchen table or other close proximity to an adult. That way, you’re monitoring, but [also] allowing some independence.”

“Make a point to sit with your child for at least a few minutes during their screen time (the younger they are, the more you should be at their side) and ask about what they’re doing. It’s actually pretty cool in the eyes of a 10-year-old to teach their parents something!” she advises. “As a child grows, part of their social identity will be tied to communicating with friends via social media platforms. It wasn’t this way for us, but it is that way now for teens.”

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