It was bedtime, and I was sitting next to my nine-year-old daughter, Norah. I was tucking her in for the night. She was in pink bunny print zip up footed pajamas, her brown hair dark wet and slicked back from taking a bath. She was sitting cross-legged on her bed, looking up at me, when I asked if she’d heard of this Momo person.
Moments earlier, I’d just gotten home from a late night shift, and my wife and I were in the kitchen discussing the creepy and terrifying Momo challenge that had been eating up our Facebook pages for the past several hours.
Neither of us had seen it online, but like most parents, it scared us.
It scared us real bad. While I was at work, Mel had already asked our other two children about Momo, and nether of them had heard of her. She asked me if I’d chat with Norah about it.
Naturally, nether of us had any idea if Momo was real or not. In fact, it seems like that’s still a question up for debate.
But what I can say is that one of the biggest challenges for Mel and I as parents in 2019 is trying to navigate our children’s online lives.
Naturally, we follow a lot of online safety tips.
Our children are only allowed to be online in communal spaces (our living room, or the kitchen). They aren’t allowed to be online in their bedrooms. They have screen time limits, and we have set up a number of parental controls, but even with all that, the thought that in the middle of an episode of Peppa Pig, or Sofia The First, or some dude narrating Minecraft was this crazy eyed lady telling my children to kill themselves, and if they didn’t, she’d come and hurt their family, felt as weighty as a bowling ball in my stomach.
And listen, I know there are a number of online articles going around right now, dogging on parents for sharing something like Momo and causing what very well might be an urban online legend (yes, we have those now) to go viral, but don’t kick yourself too hard. I mean, I get it.
It freaked me out too.
What really pushed this thing around is the fear that all parents have right now of not 100% understanding what our children do online, and knowing for a fact that the moment we do figure it out, it will change.
But as disturbing as this whole Momo scare was, I think the part that frightened me the most was that some online thing could convince my children to do something harmful, and not tell their parents about it.
All of it reminded me of another popular online topic in parenting circles, Abducted in Plain Sight.
Now check it out, I’m not going to go into length on how I feel about the parents in that documentary, because honestly, they made some huge missteps. But what I would like to point out is that the child molester used the same strategy as Momo.
He made his victim believe that if she told her parents, her family would be harmed. Mel and I discussed that quite a bit before I spoke with Norah, because the thing is, people who want to harm our children are obviously more afraid of the child’s parents than anyone else.
My overall goal going into chatting with my daughter was to take the power back (thank you Rage Against The Machine).
Norah shrugged when I asked her about Momo. I didn’t show her the picture of the thing because honestly, it was already giving me nightmares. The last thing I needed was Momo haunting her sleep, too.
But what I did do was tell her a little bit about how Momo would show up in the middle of a YouTube video and tell children to hurt themselves. “Have you ever seen anything like that,” I asked.
“Nope,” she said. Then she paused for a moment, deep in thought, and then asked, “Why would anyone do that?”
I let out a breath, and told her that this Momo person was telling children that if they didn’t hurt themselves, that she’d hurt their family.
She got big eyes then. I put one arm around her and said, “I need you to listen to me really closely, okay?”
“If anyone, anything, any character, ever tells you not to tell your parents something, they are a bad person. They are lying to you, and the first thing you must do in a situation like that is tell your parents.”
I told her that Mom and I are here to help guide her through tough situations.
“Our number one goal is keeping you safe.” I poked her stomach as I said, “you” and she giggled. Then I reassured her that no matter what she told me, I wouldn’t be mad. I would just help her figure out what to do, because I love her.
She looked up at me with big blue eyes, and nodded. With a nine-year-old it’s difficult to tell what’s going to take, and what isn’t. But what I can say is that she was listening.
She was hanging on my word, and I think I got through to her. And I must say, that as I finished tucking her in for the night, I felt a lot better about her safety over all, online or off, knowing that if she ran into to trouble, she understood that coming to talk her parents was the first line of defense.