Is the Momo Challenge, an online game that commands people to communicate with unknown individuals and self-harm, fake?

After Blue Whale Centre issues advisory against Momo challenge All you need to know
news Momo challenge Thursday, August 30, 2018 - 17:53

In the last few weeks, there have been several reports of police in different Indian states warning people against the latest social media phenomenon called the ‘Momo challenge’. Most recently, the Centre issued an advisory against the game, which is being linked to a few suicides in the country.

According to the advisory issued by the Ministry of Electronics and IT, the latest online challenge game, dubbed ‘The Momo Challenge’, was started on Facebook and challenges its members to communicate with unknown numbers. The games went viral on social media platforms, especially on WhatsApp.

The advisory further asks parents to look out for signs and symptoms in their children and protect them from falling prey to this game.

The challenge, the advisory and precautions against it seem fairly reminiscent of the Blue Whale challenge, another social media phenomenon, which compelled teens and youngsters into self-harm. In both the scenarios, vulnerable teens are the targets.

What is the Momo challenge?

In July 2018, a 12-year-old girl from Argentina became a victim of suicide. A resident of Ingeniero Maschwitz, a town 48 kilometres from Buenos Aires province, she hung herself from a tree in the family backyard. She is suspected to be the first victim of the Momo challenge.

The girl had apparently been in touch with an 18-year-old boy on social media. The authorities are reportedly trying to track the boy. She is said to have recorded her actions before taking her life, which, the police suspect, someone encouraged her to do. Her intention was to upload the video on social media “as part of a challenge aimed at crediting the Momo game" for the suicide, Buenos Aires Times reported.

The challenge, much like the Blue Whale, attempts to push and encourage a person to self-harm and eventually, take their life.

The game reportedly surfaced on Facebook, where people would be challenged to communicate with an unknown person via an unknown number. The link to the same is circulated over WhatsApp.

The challenge takes the name ‘Momo’ from the name of the accounts, which are apparently active on Facebook and WhatsApp.

The photo of a sinister-looking girl doll, with protruding eyes and a wide mouth, is being associated with the challenge, and is usually the profile picture used by these accounts.

Once the ‘Momo’ contacts the victims, they send across a series of tasks that must be completed to meet ‘Momo’. Like in Blue Whale challenge, these tasks are reportedly violent, with the final task being suicide.

If a person refuses to do these tasks, they are threatened and sent violent images. This much has been confirmed in a few reports, although the threats are not exactly ‘violent’ in nature.

For instance, Abdul Kuddus, who ran a mobile repair business in Birhum district, West Bengal, was allegedly threatened when he refused to follow instructions that he received from a ‘Momo’ account. Then, an unknown number sent him his bank account details on WhatsApp. Abdul said he feared that his financial details were in possession of the people behind this.

According to reports, Momo challenge originated in Japan and has made its way to several countries including the US, Mexico, France and Germany.

Is the Momo challenge real?

While there have been scattered reports of the challenge posing a threat, the authenticity of the Momo challenge remains hard to be established.

While the suicides of two people in West Bengal, an 18-year-old boy and 26-year-old woman, were earlier suspected to be related to the Momo Challenge, the state CID wing clarified on Wednesday that it was not the case.

Meanwhile, a case of suicide by a class 10 girl in Ajmer is being linked to the challenge, as she was reportedly excited about levelling up in an online game, which she used to play in her free time. However, her suicide note blames low grades for taking the extreme step.

Further, a cyber expert Ritesh Bhatia told India Today that his attempts to contact WhatsApp admins of Momo groups in Japan, Colombia and Mexico had revealed that the accounts, while complete with the photos of ‘Momo’, were actually inactive. He dismissed the challenge as a hoax.  

In other countries as well, there are similar questions about the challenge. In July, the Spanish police declared the challenge as a hoax, and even the Mexico police warned people that the challenge was being used to steal personal information.

Meanwhile, the picture of ‘Momo’, the grotesque girl, was traced to a sculpture made by Japanese special effects company Link Factory. It is called ‘Mother Bird’ and was displayed at Tokyo’s horror art Vanilla Gallery in 2016.

Theft of personal information, targeting vulnerable persons

Whether the Momo challenge is real or not, the risks it poses are threatening. We ran a simple search on Facebook for ‘Momo challenge’ and the results threw up a number of accounts with the name and profile picture of ‘Momo’. 

The results were similar for Twitter. It goes on show that it is easy to create an account.

Apart from the theft of sensitive personal information, as Abdul’s case reveals, it also opens up the risk of extortion and harassment. And much like the Blue Whale challenge, the greatest risk perhaps is to people who undergo depression or have suicidal tendencies.

For example, a first-year college student from Jalpaiguri in West Bengal filed a police complaint after she received a WhatsApp message from an unknown number to play the Momo challenge. This reportedly happened after she posted on social media that she wanted to take her life after she had a quarrel with her mother.

While combing through the replies to multiple tweets by a particular Twitter handle called ‘Momo challenge’, we found that people have shared their WhatsApp number, declared their interest to ‘play’. Someone even said that they are ‘very lonely’.

While anyone can be a target of the Momo challenge, issues that children across the globe face, such as peer pressure, depression, anxiety and the need for validation, may make them more vulnerable to such attacks.

Signs to look out for

The advisory issued by the Centre says, “Check in with your child. Ask if there have been things stressing them, or anything that has them worried. Monitor your children’s online and social media activity to ensure they are not engaging in this game.”

It further says that parents should not discuss the Momo challenge with their children in case the latter are not aware of it. It may pique their curiosity to try and look for it online.

Previously, the West Bengal CID issued the warning after the challenge was connected to two suicides in the state, and several others reported receiving an ‘invite’ to do the challenge. The Mumbai police and Kerala police also warned people to inform the police if they received suspicious invites for the same.

When TNM had spoken to experts to ascertain the risks and effects of the Blue Whale challenge, one of the top concerns that emerged was to address mental health. The intricacies of the Momo challenge seem to match the Blue Whale Challenge in many aspects.

S Vandhana, a clinical psychologist, had told TNM then that parents and teachers should look out for signs of self-harm, such as cuts and bruises, in children. Sudden behavioural changes in individuals – whether it is sullenness and withdrawal or bursts of energy and talkativeness – are also red flags.

It also advisable to keep an eye on the child’s online activity. However, parents should not snoop as it could violate the child’s trust.

UK-based children’s advice group NSPCC also points out some signifiers that could indicate if a child is being abused online. These are:

  • Spending much more or much less time online, texting, gaming or using social media
  • The child appearing withdrawn, upset or outraged after using the Internet or texting
  • Secrecy about whom they are talking to and what they are doing online or on cellphones
  • A lot of new phone numbers, text messages or e-mail addresses on their mobile phone, laptop or tablet

Also read: Playing Sherlock in the digital age: The right way to monitor your child's use of technology

Blue Whale game may or may not be a hoax; it’s teen mental health we should be talking about

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