Unless you’ve been hiding under a social-media rock for the past 48 hours—in which case, I am so jealous—you’ve been subjected to the waking nightmare of Momo. You know, that horribly creepy female “character” with the bugged-out eyes and gruesome smile that’s been infiltrating kids’ YouTube videos.
She is every parent’s worst nightmare, since her sole function is to terrify the youngest and most vulnerable of our kids and possibly even get them to hurt themselves. She’s also been literally giving me nightmares, as I found myself wide awake at 3 a.m. for the past two nights, in a cold sweat and worried that she was lurking somewhere in my bedroom.
Despite what some sites are reporting, this isn’t a hoax. It may not be spurring children to commit suicide, as The Atlantic notes, and thank goodness for that, but it is certainly scaring the bejesus out of them and it is happening. A friend’s daughter saw Momo pop into a video she was watching, and so did a number of friends of friends’ kids. And this isn’t like those stories from your friend’s cousin’s ex-boyfriend’s camp crush, who told you that weird sex story about that girl you went to high school with. These folks are legit.
So, there’s some good news and some bad news. I’ll start with the bad news: This latest Internet nightmare is something that’s probably going to haunt us for a while, and even if it doesn’t, there will likely be another one knocking at our smartphones before we know it.
And now for the good news: Momo is actually a good springboard for talking with your kids about some really serious issues—online and in real life.
How can they understand a threat to their safety when they’ve been so sheltered and loved and protected? They can’t. Not really. I don’t want to frighten them, but they need to understand it at least a little so they have a fighting chance.
That’s exactly what I did with Momo yesterday morning, after I asked my kids if they’d ever seen her. (Thankfully they hadn’t, though they were totally freaked out by the image.) Now, safety is something that I discuss with my kids on a pretty regular basis, but sometimes it feels so intangible. How can they understand a threat to their safety when they’ve been so sheltered and loved and protected? They can’t. Not really. And I don’t want to frighten them, but they need to understand it at least a little so that they have a fighting chance if they’re confronted with something horrible.
When I explained that Momo was a made-up character that someone had put into kids’ videos to scare them, say bad things to them and possibly even get them to hurt themselves, my 7-year-old asked the perfect question to lead us into the discussion I wanted to have: Why would someone do that?
Because not everyone is good in this world, my sweet boy. And this isn’t just about Momo. Some people make bad choices, and some people will try to hurt you. I will do everything in my power to protect you and your sister, but I need both of you to know a few things, too, in order to help me do that.
We do not keep secrets from each other. Full stop. No adult should ever ask you to keep a secret from your parents, unless you are making a present in art class, in which case, that’s a surprise, not a secret. But there’s a high probability that an adult who asks you to keep a secret from your parents doesn’t have good intentions. Tell us immediately. Even if they do have good intentions and they’re being “silly” or playing a “game,” which has actually happened in the past, they will get an explanation from Mom as to why that’s dangerous and not OK in our house.
Sometimes, a person will tell you that they will hurt us if you don’t keep their secret or you don’t do what they say. This is one of the things that Momo apparently says. Never believe this. We know that you love us and want to protect us, but we will be OK. This is a lie, and something someone might say to try to get you to do something you don’t want to do. Get yourself away from that person and find us or another trusted adult right away.
You know that no one should touch your private parts. We’ve talked about that before. A lot. If anyone tries, you tell them no and you do your best to get out of there. You do not need to be polite. Get out of there and tell us. We will never be upset or angry with you. And if something has happened, God forbid, the same holds true.
Adults you know
This is a tough one, but you need to know that it’s not just strangers who can do bad things. Sometimes people you know, people you think you can trust, aren’t good people. Yes, the teachers, coaches, doctors and other adults we know all seem good and they probably are…but there is a chance that some of them aren’t. And even if they are good and trustworthy, other grown-ups you may meet in the future may try to do something inappropriate. This could even happen with a priest or other person in a power position. (Side note: This is something I’ve been struggling with since my son started CCD this year, and I was grateful for the opportunity to discuss it in this way.) You need to know this, and again, this is not something you should ever be embarrassed about or be worried about telling us. These adults are in the wrong, not you.
Adults you don’t know
What should you do if a grown-up asks you to help find their puppy? (Thankfully both kids said they wouldn’t go with the stranger this time, I could see that the 3-year-old felt bad about it.) That’s right: You don’t go with them. No adult will ever ask a child for help in this way, not without a parent accompanying them. Not ever. And if someone tries to grab you, you kick, you scream and you yell, “This isn’t my Mommy or Daddy! I need help right now!”
And now, back to the Momo horror show. If you ever see anyone like that character or even a normal-looking person telling you to hurt yourself or do other bad things, do not follow their directions and tell us immediately.
Anything else that makes you uncomfortable
If something feels off to you, that’s because it probably is. Trust yourself, and trust us. Tell us what’s bothering you and we will help you.
This seems like a lot, I know, but in the moment, it didn’t feel overwhelming. It felt like a natural discussion, a real conversation—granted, one that I felt like I was navigating over landmines, but a good conversation, nonetheless.
I could tell that they were grappling with these big concepts because how could they not? Hell, I can barely process all of this and I’m the grown-up here. Why would someone do these things? Why would someone you know and trust hurt you? Why would anyone ever hurt a child?
The world is a scary place, and sometimes it feels like the job of a parent is to play defense at every turn. How can we not be scared? It’s impossible. But we can’t let the fear get the best of us. I think that we have to use the fear and turn it on its head—by being honest with our kids in an age-appropriate way and by preparing them for what might be waiting for them out there. And this just isn’t about Momo. This goes for everything.
Remember: A well-informed, well-prepared kid is the best defense against these monsters, and it’s their worst nightmare.
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