Reports of the "Momo challenge" — a social media scare that’s swept the country — have reached Nebraska, prompting some Lincoln Public Schools principals to inform parents about it and remind them to talk with their kids about what they’re looking at online.
The Momo challenge purportedly involves a scary figure and messages encouraging dangerous activities or suicide, and appears in children’s videos through YouTube or WhatsApp.
But the scary figure is actually a sculpture created by artist Keisuke Aisawa for a Japanese special-effects company, and many experts say it’s likely a viral hoax perpetuated by stories on local news stations and scared parents sharing screen shots of the figure.
A story in The Atlantic said the same cycle occurred last summer across the United States and before that throughout Latin America. A YouTube spokesman has said the company has found no evidence of videos showing or promoting “Momo.”
But news stations have interviewed parents who said their children have been scared by the figure. And York Police Officer Shawn Humphrey told the Journal Star that within the past week, police helped an adolescent get into counseling after seeing Momo images spliced into an unrelated animé video on YouTube.
That prompted York Police Chief Ed Tjaden to warn parents to keep a close eye on their children’s social media and online activities and that there are “predatory activities such as these that may not even require direct contact such as messaging or email.”
No cases had been reported to Lincoln police, a spokesperson said Thursday.
Benjamin Radford, a folklorist and research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry told Rolling Stone that even if it is a hoax, the fact that the hoax is spreading means vulnerable people learn about it and that creates a risk.
As a precaution, LPS district officials wrote a letter it shared with principals, but left it up to them to decide whether to share it with parents.
The e-mail mentions news reports of the content circulating on social media and says they’ve heard concerns from some parents and students. The e-mail provides links to resources to help parents promote online safety and offers resources for families who may have a concern about suicide.
And it reminds parents to monitor and review their children's online activities and to talk with them about what they’re viewing.
LPS Student Services Director Russ Uhing said administrators have fielded several calls from students' parents who’d heard about it and the district wanted to give principals a way to address it if they felt it necessary.
LPS officials have no reports of children being exposed to the images, he said, but even if it's a hoax, it can cause concern.
“The concern is if it’s out, it’s out ... and that creates anxiety among students and parents,” he said. “We’re just really trying to calm the waters a little bit.”
Pound Middle School Principal Chris Deibler is among several principals who decided to send the e-mail.
He said it wasn’t a big concern at school, but a couple of kids had mentioned it to their parents, and students had asked him if he’d heard of it.
He said he figured it's a good opportunity to encourage parents to check their children's social media accounts — something that doesn’t happen enough — and to get ahead of potential problems.
“The mentality is to be preventative. I thought I’d rather err on the side of caution rather than have to chase it down on the back side,” he said.