Ever heard of the Salem Witch Trials? Between February 1692 and May 1693 more than 200 people were accused of witchcraft in the small colonial town of Salem, and it’s surrounding villages. 19 people were hanged, one man was crushed to death and five died in jail. The Salem Witch Trials remains one of the most notorious cases of mass hysteria.
Could it be compared to Momo?
What is Momo?
Supposedly, Momo is a terrifying character appearing on YouTube videos, particularly targeting children’s shows like Peppa Pig. The character reveals a number that children are told to contact on the messaging service, Whatsapp.
When children do so, they are said to receive a series of challenges ranging from watching a horror film to self-harming and ultimately suicide.
Momo has been lurking in the darker corners of the internet since 2018, but made a media storm in February 2019. Most sources link this back to the point when the police service in Northern Ireland shared a warning about it.
Despite coverage on most of the major news channels and social media, there are no links confirmed links between Momo and any child carrying out any of the rumoured consequences. Samaritans reported to the Guardian that they had more calls from media channels than concerned parents.
According to website Know your Meme the image actually comes from a Japanese special effects company and originally appeared on the internet around 2016.
The whole thing appears to be a hoax. Fake News. And that’s a relief, thankfully no child has been harmed. But as we soothe our rattled nerves let’s take a moment to learn from this.
Moral powder keg
Back in 1692, Salem was still quite a new settlement for Europeans. The first colony in America had only been founded 90 years earlier in Jamestown, Virginia.
The puritans mainly left the moral cesspit of Europe to start a new and Godly colony across the pond (I’m paraphrasing their sentiment). They were a hardy bunch but their deep faith and new surroundings bred unprecedented fear.
The climate was very different and they faced constant threat of starvation from failing crops. They were years away from their family, their home nation’s law and any other useful amenities. Add to that a fear of indigenous groups in the area. and you can see why the puritans were a group constantly on the edge.
They were also deeply religious, to the point of superstitious. They held an extreme understanding of the Bible, in which they felt in a constant battle with the forces of darkness. The devil lurked around every corner and if they didn’t hold tightly to God’s commands then they would surely be left to the devil’s mercy.
Their landscape was a moral powder keg and one spark was enough to set off the witch trials.
We too live in an incredibly tightly sprung society. Like those original settlers, we face a very radically different landscape to what we are used to. Parents today are the first generation to be raising digital natives (those who have grown up with a digital device all but attached to a limb). The internet is our New World.
With it comes a similar level of fear. Are our children addicted to devices? Has this final frontier of the internet left the next generation under threat of being mindless robots with the attention span of a gnat? Are they under attack from unknown forces of darkness lurking in the corners of this new landscape?
Our technological progress has left us with a similar level of fear as those puritans in 1600. Being aware of that should make us more cautious and willing to separate genuine threats from those that play on our fears.
The rumour mill
Salem was awash with rumours that led to the trials of over 200 people. It was like a deadly game of Chinese whispers. But it began with just two young girls having fits – a scary phenomenon for a society terrified of demons.
Similarly, Momo began with an image and a story that cut to the heart of our fears. In both cases it came from a noble cause: parents worried about their children. Of course we want to protect our children. Of course we want to be aware of the dangers they face and stop anything from hurting them.
But in both a small and curious case, with little to no evidence linking it to substantiated fears, it fanned into flames a state of moral panic. Salem hit the courts and Momo reached national media coverage.
Where do we go from here?
I think we need to be aware of where we are. As a society, we need to take a big, deep breath and take stock. Let’s acknowledge that we are worried about what is happening in society. Caution is a good thing. The internet is a messy place and we need to equip our children as they grow up in it.
But let’s not get into an unnecessary panic. We need to remind ourselves that we can remain in charge. That our children need to know how to make moral decisions safely, with us walking alongside them. Like crossing the road, children will face dangers and we need to teach them the internet equivalent of looking both ways.
Let’s use this to talk to our children about internet safety and equip them to know that if they see a creepy face on a Peppa Pig video (or anything else that scares or worries them), they shouldn’t do what it says but come and talk to us.