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Alarm over 'Momo challenge' may do more harm than good, experts say

School boards and police in eastern Ontario have posted warnings about an unverified internet challenge that reportedly targets children, but experts argue there is little evidence the phenomenon exists and the authorities may be doing more harm than good.  

Several local school boards all put out statements warning of the "Momo challenge", in which the image of a creepy, bug-eyed sculpture is allegedly used to encourage children to complete dangerous dares and potentially self-harm. According to several online reports, the creepy image surfaces in online videos or is shared on social media.  

The Ottawa Carleton District School Board released a statement, calling the Momo challenge confusingly both "a cyberbullying threat and internet hoax" but suggesting that, hoax or not, "the risks of cyberbullying are real and can lead to increased behavioural risks, anxiety and stress."

The Ontario Provincial Police also posted on Twitter about the so-called challenge, saying it was an opportunity to "educate kids on being safe."

No evidence it exists 

Digital marketing expert and visiting professor at the University of Ottawa Jonathan Simon says despite his own expertise he was even fooled by the 'momo challenge' internet hoax and urges people to not blame parents. 0:51

But while there are legitimate concerns when it comes to children spending time on the internet, the "Momo challenge" isn't one of them, said Jonathan Simon, a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa and a digital marketing expert.

The issue is that there isn't any evidence the challenge, which reportedly began in 2016, exists.

After reports about alleged Momo sightings in both the United States and United Kingdom this week, YouTube released a statement Wednesday, saying the platform has seen "no recent evidence of videos promoting the Momo Challenge."

"Despite press reports of this challenge surfacing, we haven't had any recent links flagged or shared with us from YouTube that violate our Community Guidelines," the statement read.

Notably, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which issued a warning Monday, acknowledged they have actually received no official complaints related to the issue.

This sculpture by a Japanese artist has been co-opted as the Momo character. (Twitter )

Sharing disinformation

Simon says school boards should be careful about the language they use in order to avoid inadvertently spreading a hoax themselves.

"Any time the school board gets involved, I think that helps," he said. "Where it becomes negative is if those school boards, which are trusted by the parents, start also disseminating the misinformation."

While parents in several Facebook groups have shared the story, official sources like school boards and police have amplified the message.

The Limestone board sent out their note to parents Wednesday after they themselves received a warning that same day from the U.S.-based North American Center for Threat Assessment and Trauma Response.

The warnings have prompted concern from parents in several Facebook groups.

Alyssa Harding of Ottawa is a member of one such group, where she's seen numerous posts featuring the "creepy" image, she said, though neither she nor her two daughters have come across the "challenge" in action.

She said the posts have had her on high alert about what her children could see online.

Rumours can be damaging

"I didn't want them searching for it. I didn't want that curiosity to come out," she said. "I kind of just generalized and said, if you ever see something not right just let me know."

The fact that such disturbing content is entirely plausible on the internet might be a reason that such rumours spread, Simon said.

Simon himself has two children under the age of five and came across the posts about the challenge in a Facebook group for Orléans parents.

"I'm a digital marketer who does this every single day, and I looked at that headline and I believed it," he said. "So I don't blame parents for being fooled."

But even rumours about dangerous internet trends have the potential to be damaging, said Tracy Vaillancourt, a research chair at the University of Ottawa, where she specializes in children's mental health and violence prevention.

"A general rule is if it sounds outrageous, it typically is outrageous," she said. "I think parents need to be really critical of what they're reading online."