Kids and Internet Safety

Internet Safety: Should Parents Worry About the Momo Challenge?

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

While some claim it’s an internet hoax, the “Momo challenge” is scaring parents and compelling school districts to send letters home across metro Detroit.

The Momo challenge allegedly entices children to text a number to WhatsApp, a messaging and social media app, and they are then lured to complete tasks from watching scary movie clips, including self-harm and even suicide. There’s also rumors about disturbing images of a doll-like figure and similar menacing messages appearing midway through YouTube videos, even those on YouTube Kids.

Leonard Pollack, M.D., a Henry Ford pediatrician, says his advice to parents regarding the Momo challenge mirrors his continual recommendation regarding computer use: Don’t let young children watch internet channels alone.

“The internet is a powerful tool, and like other powerful tools, it can also be very dangerous,” Dr. Pollack says. “And like we wouldn’t allow a child to use a chainsaw unsupervised, or learn to drive a car without guidance, we need to teach a child how to watch and use a computer and other devices properly.”

As parents introduce children to YouTube videos or online entertainment, they should make sure the child knows how to turn off the electronic device if they see something bad or scary, he recommends.

In addition to monitoring what your child’s use, make sure to educate yourself on and use parental control options for electronic devices and take advantage of privacy setting on social media apps that your child uses, especially older children and teens whose use you may not be able to monitor as closely.

For example, on YouTube you can turn off ‘suggested auto-play’ on videos to stop the next video from automatically playing after one video ends and exposing your child to content neither you or they have not directly selected. While parental controls may not be perfect tools, they can provide some extra level of safety.

What Has Your Child Already Seen?

If parents don’t know if their children have seen inappropriate videos, Dr. Pollack recommends backing into a conversation about internet safety. An example would be asking the child, “Have you ever been watching something and something else pops up that wasn’t supposed to be there?”

If they have seen inappropriate videos, discuss that they’re fake or not true-to-life.

“They need to know it’s not real. They understand that Peppa Pig is a pig that talks and real pigs don’t talk. I think they can understand these types of things aren’t real, if you address their fears and allow them to express them and not sit and think about it,” he says.

Talking Regularly About Internet Safety

Open conversations about safe internet use also helps protect kids and teens from online bullying

Older kids need to know there is somewhere they can discuss internet issues, such as cyberbullying or people forcing them to do things they don’t want to do: their parents, a counselor, a trusted adult or the online app, Ok2Say, which is a confidential tipline operated by the State of Michigan.

“I don’t think children withdraw after the first time seeing something or experiencing something bad,” Dr. Pollack says. “They withdraw when they feel they can’t discuss it with anyone.”

Related Topic: The Pros and Cons of Screen Time: How to Manage Your Child’s Use

Children who suddenly seem withdrawn or sad – and they can’t or won’t pinpoint the problem – should be seen by a doctor or counselor, Dr. Pollack said.

“If you notice a change in your child and can’t figure it out, this is when you get professional help.”

To make an appointment with a Henry Ford pediatrician or family medicine provider, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).


Dr. Leonard Pollack is a pediatrician who sees patients at Henry Ford Macomb Hospital and Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.