Recent headlines about the "Momo challenge" have sent reactive waves through households, news organizations and schools. Blaring, alarmist headlines scare parents about a creepy, bird-like character leading their children, Pied Piper-style, down dark cyber-paths. But whether or not Momo is a “real” threat, a viral hoax, or a revisitation of old news, we are focusing on the wrong thing.
When I was a kid, every Halloween we were warned by well-meaning adults to watch out for razor blades in the apples that were passed out to trick-or-treaters. On the rare occasion an apple dropped into my orange plastic pumpkin, I never once encountered a razor blade, but no one ever warned me about the far more likely danger on Halloween night: The impending stomachache from consuming so much sugar.
The problem with the Momo challenge (and others like it) is that it is simultaneously a call to action for already concerned parents and a huge distraction from the real issues that should concern us when it comes to screens and technology.
It should not take a viral prank (real or fake) to get us worried about what kids are seeing and doing online.
It’s nothing new for parents to highly overreact to urban legends: fear of razor blades hiding in kids’ Halloween stashes; the Dungeons and Dragons satanic ritual scare; teens supposedly listening to songs backwards and hearing subliminal “pro-drug” messages.
In the digital age, where so much of our information consumption takes place in cyberspace, our human and natural inclination towards fear-based reactions adds gasoline to the fire. But, the problem with fear-mongering is that it rarely works and can often make things worse.
It should not take a viral prank (real or fake) to get us worried about what kids are seeing and doing online. Article after article has discussed the dangers of YouTube for young children; the risk of trusting companies to “moderate content” when their bottom line depends on users staying for as long as possible; the seedy, dangerous and inappropriate dark alleys of the internet into which we can all so easily venture. Most thoughtful parents *know* that letting kids surf uninhibited on the internet is rarely a good idea. In fact, it’s exactly why so many of us turn to apps or software to filter, monitor and protect.
Plus, we forget sometimes that kids can be quite resilient, and that it is the projection of our own parental anxiety and fears that is the real problem. For overworked and overtired parents, it is much easier to worry about one freakish story and “handle it” than it is to address the much messier, more complicated issues, such as limiting kids’ daily screen time or rethinking their access to YouTube in general.
So, what should parents do in response?
In a seemingly chaotic world magnified 24/7 on our devices, it is important to remember that fear does not serve anyone and that there are concrete things we can do now that will help our children in the future.
- We can talk to our children about being “tech-intentional” — there is a time and a place for technology. It is a tool, not only a toy.
- We can teach our children to be “tech-skeptical” — not just to avoid click-bait headlines, but to also think before we share, question sources, and identify truth in a pile of murky falsehoods.
- We can remind children, especially young ones, never to surf alone, and talk to them about what to do when they see something scary, violent or inappropriate (and not get mad at them about it when they do).
- Finally, we can grow more skeptical of our own susceptibility to click and share in the name of “protecting” our children.
The internet can be a scary place. But, at the end of the day, this is not about the razor blades in the apples. It is about the fact that it is much more difficult to talk about all that candy.