This, my friends, is a face that will give anyone nightmares, especially if you’re a child. And that’s exactly what it was originally designed to do. The statue, which was named “Mother Bird” was created in 2016 by Keisuke Aiso for an exhibition inspired by Japanese ghost stories; the figure is based on local folklore about a woman who died in childbirth and returned as a bird, intent upon haunting the area where she died. However, it was never the artist’s desire that the piece be used to frighten children—unfortunately that has become its lot in life.
In true social media form someone posted a picture of the creature, renamed it Momo, and either created the “Momo Challenge” or stories about it. The alleged game is said to entice children to harm themselves in various challenges while filming their activities. The final challenge supposedly requires the child to commit suicide, offering explicit instructions on how to accomplish that goal.
You may have noticed a lot of qualifiers in that last paragraph, like “alleged”, “is said to” and “supposedly”. That’s because internet experts and social media platforms such as YouTube haven’t found any evidence the original challenge game actually existed, although there are numerous claims stating otherwise, but that lack of evidence hasn’t stopped the copycats. Enterprising and evilly-minded folks took the picture and spliced it into videos such as Peppa Pig on YouTube Kids, or into popular games such as Fortnite, so it pops up unexpectedly, terrifying the victims. The whole mess has brought about numerous warnings from police departments and school systems, encouraging parents to be more conscious of their children’s activity on-line and to watch for signs that their child could be considering self-harm or suicide.
That’s the only positive outcome from this entire episode. People have religiously shared anecdotal stories of someone’s child dying at the command of a creepy on-line creature. They have hit the Facebook Share button without actually knowing if there is any truth to the matter or if the entire thing is a hoax—a response that drives me crazy because it happens all the time. Otherwise intelligent people share things on social media without ever questioning the validity of what they’ve read, thereby perpetuating the problem. But that’s another soapbox for another day.
What has happened by sharing these tales without confirmation is that the copycats now have a new weapon in their arsenal. But the greater threat is the distraction this causes where the real and very troubling issues lie.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, in 2017 suicide was the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 24. Between the ages of 10 and 14 there were 517 reported instances; between the ages of 15 and 24 that number increased to 6,252. Sadly, those numbers are small compared to the number of children who try and, in their minds, fail. By focusing on what is possibly a hoax and blaming it for deaths that have not been definitively connected to it, we are overlooking the real problem—what causes these children to take their own lives?
Most suicides are rooted in two emotions: hopelessness and helplessness. Those two will lead to despair and despair then reinforces the belief that the situation is hopeless and the one struggling is helpless to change it. So begins the vicious cycle and eventually death seems to be the only way out. But beneath those two driving forces are so many other factors . . . bullying, drugs, and mental illness being perhaps the most prevalent.
So what can we do to address suicide in our children? Unfortunately, there is no one solution that fits every situation and no one solution that is guaranteed to work. But we can be more present and more aware. Don’t use technology as a babysitter. Let’s get our heads out of our phones and into the lives of our children. Converse with them over meals. Know their friends and what they’re doing. When their behavior changes, try to understand why. If your child is being bullied, step up . . . and if your child is the bully, step in. No one is perfect, not even our children, so don’t be guilty of trying to defend the indefensible. If you see your child struggling or they ask for help, listen . . . then find them the help they need. Don’t pretend that need will go away if you just ignore it. It won’t, and that’s the best way to guarantee you will lose them. As I said earlier, there is no perfect solution, and all of our best efforts may still result in failure, but we have to try. Our children are the most precious resource we have on this planet—they are our future—and they need to know we believe that.