COMMENT: By Vera Alves

The hysteria over the Momo challenge has claimed millons victims worldwide this week, but none of them were children.

The real victims of this so-called challenge are the parents. Parents who have enough on their plates and don't need to be guilt-tripped into worrying that letting their children watch cartoons will lead to them committing suicide.

We're being told that if we allow our children to watch a seemingly innocent video on YouTube, even if just for 10 minutes while we get dinner ready, they might end up killing themselves. Try to think of a worst nightmare for a parent, I'll wait.

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That's the message being spread by millions worldwide, including authorities, with no actual real evidence of any link between suicides or violent attacks and pictures of Momo popping up on Peppa videos.

Fact-checking site Snopes says a "good deal of skepticism remains that the existence of the Momo challenge may be far more hype or hoax than reality" and no authority has ever been able to establish a clear link tying any suicide or violent assault cases to any participation in the challenge.

That's not to say that there aren't, right now, videos online that contain a picture of Momo popping up to scare your children. But it can be a real chicken and egg situation too, whereby helping spread the message of warning, you're just inspiring the behaviour.

So why did it spread so quickly?

It spread so quickly because it plays on a parent's most basic and primitive fears: the fear that their child might get seriously hurt and - what's worse - that might happen under their watch. No parent wants to risk that. So you share all the warnings and you shove Momo photos in your child's faces, just in case, on the very off chance that this might be true, you want to feel like you did what you could to stop it.

And this is how parents ended up being the ones spreading the challenge faster than anyone else. The challenge they so wanted to end went viral because they could not stop talking about it.

If you're in any parenting group on Facebook, you're likely to have seen threads by parents concerned about their children coming across Momo, who supposedly pops up on YouTube videos to scare children and talk them into suicide.

Except, as far as anyone has been able to tell, none of this actually happens.

I saw many of these threads this week and my heart broke for these parents, who already have so much to worry about and definitely don't need this unnecessarily mental load on them. One mum, in particular, broke my heart a little, when she said she'd been up all night worried about what her children may have seen on YouTube, combing through all the videos they'd watch that day to make sure they were all as safe and innocent as she'd hope they were.

The Momo Challenge spread so quickly because parents are so desperate to keep their children safe at all costs and because they are so vulnerable to being guilt-tripped and believing they are not doing a good enough job of protecting their little ones.

The really ironic thing is that most kids who've now seen the disturbing picture of the Japanese sculpture associated with Momo saw it because their parents showed it to them while trying to warn them about this supposed challenge. And so they got scared - because of course, it's a scary picture to look at. And they went to school and told their friends, who then talked about it with their parents and so on.

Parents don't need this rubbish. Raising children is hard enough with this kind of stuff spreading like wildfire and piling up on what's already a pretty massive mountain of guilt, anxiety and worry.

Every parent knows that feeling of guilt that comes from parking their child in front of a screen because they are too busy and too overwhelmed to do anything more interactive. We've all been told over and over again about how we're damaging our kids because we let them watch cartoons and, deep down, we all wish we didn't have to resort to the TV so our kids keep quiet for a while sometimes.

And so we sit them in front of it with a snack, earn ourselves a 20-minute break from all the screaming and running around and the sound of all of our favourite things breaking (the soundtrack of the school holidays) but that much needed "me time" is not only used for chores but also tainted with guilt over the fact that we resorted to a screen, as if that makes us a bad parent.

For that, we need compassion, not guilt.

So here's what you ACTUALLY, TRULY need to know about the Momo challenge:

It is, as far as experts can tell, a hoax. It's been propagated across the internet as fast as any rumour propagates these days. Your child has likely not seen this scary face pop up during a Peppa episode or any other cartoon. They've heard of it in the school playground because of this mass hysteria prompting parents to talk about it with their children - sometimes, ironically enough, showing them the Momo picture themselves.

This "challenge" is nothing new. It's been doing the rounds around the world for more than a year but social media has reignited the interest in it when it began to emerge in Facebook groups again recently.

The Momo Challenge is a good excuse for having conversations with your children around safety online - these conversations should happen regularly anyway and parents, in general, are well aware of that need (no need for a creepy face guilt-tripping us, thank you very much).

By all means sit down with your children and have conversations about how to stay safe online. Take the opportunity to use Momo as an excuse to open the lines of conversation about this kind of thing in your family. But don't fall for the guilt trip.

You are doing an amazing job. Letting your child watch cartoons does not make you a bad parent. It makes you a busy parent who knows when to have a break. This old-fashioned view that screens are the devil has no truth to it - yet it keeps spreading precisely because it plays on this perennial parental guilt.

We don't live in a world of absolutes. It's not ok to put your child in front of a screen for hours on end and not regulate what they watch but it is totally fine to choose a cartoon with them and let them watch it for a little bit while you rest or do whatever else you want.

There are so many bad things to be careful about on the internet - and on YouTube in particular - but the Momo Challenge is not one of them.

Netsafe's advice for parents

Netsafe this week released information about the Momo challenge, stating that while they had received reports "relating to young people who have been exposed to a harmful online 'game' known as the Momo challenge" they "have not received any reports of young people in New Zealand taking part in the 'challenge'".

However, the agency says they are aware that "some young people have seen content relating to Momo and have been very upset by the content and imagery".

It is unknown whether this content has surfaced after the rumour spread, precisely inspired by it.

Regardless, Netsafe says that whether or not this is a hoax, it's important that people report any instances of coming across this "challenge" online, as it is against the law to incite suicide.

Here's what Netsafe suggests parents do about this:

- Have a conversation with young people about what to do if they do come across upsetting content online
- Let your child know that they can come to you when they find something upsetting and they won't get in trouble
- Stay calm if they do come to you – don't assign blame, reassure them that it's not their fault and don't punish them for seeking help
- Normalise their feelings – let them know that it is normal to feel scared, confused or upset
- Don't over-react by taking away the technology – this may make them less likely to talk to you if something else happens
- For young children in particular, consider using parental controls to block out specific keywords like "Momo"
- If you or your child comes across this type of content report it to the platform that it's on
- If your child is expressing any concerning feelings, follow up with mental health support
- If you know that a young person has been engaging in this challenge, report it to the Police and Netsafe, and contact a mental health service for support.

WHERE TO GET HELP:

If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.

OR IF YOU NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE:

0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP) (available 24/7)
https://www.lifeline.org.nz/services/suicide-crisis-helpline
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633
• NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757 or TEXT 4202