FILE - This Feb. 19, 2014, file photo shows the Facebook app icon on an iPhone in New York. Panic over what children are picking up over the Internet sweep social media on a regular basis. In the most recent, children are purportedly encouraged to complete harmful tasks. Though the so-called Momo challenge is believed to be a hoax, other “challenges” and trends should cause concern. (AP Photo/Karly Domb Sadof, File)

Don’t panic: How parents can deal with internet hoaxes

Experts say internet hoaxes focused on youth tap into fears parents have about protecting their children

The latest parental panic on social media — over a purported challenge for kids to complete harmful tasks — elevates the importance of establishing an open dialogue with children and taking advantage of online parental controls.

Warnings about the “Momo challenge” swept Facebook and other social media in recent days, as parents worried about purported videos that encourage children to hurt themselves or do other harmful tasks such as turning on stoves without telling their parents. The parental warnings were accompanied by a disturbing image of a grinning creature with matted hair and bulging eyes.

But the challenge is believed to be a hoax. It’s unclear how many videos exist or to what extent they have circulated, among children or elsewhere. Some of the videos might have been made in response to media attention surrounding the challenge. Meanwhile, the image of the grinning creature is reportedly from a Japanese sculpture.

Fact-checking site Snopes said the challenge first appeared in mid-2018 linked to suicide reports without actual evidence. YouTube said it hasn’t received “any recent evidence of videos showing or promoting the Momo challenge” on its service.

So why the panic? Experts say internet hoaxes focused on children tap into fears that parents have about protecting their children online and elsewhere. In addition to anxiety about “screen time ” in general, there is certainly plenty of problematic videos that children shouldn’t watch. It’s hard for parents to police everything children do online. Fears were compounded when some school systems, local media and even police sent out their own warnings, accompanied by fuzzy facts.

“All moral panics feed on some degree of reality, but then they get blown out of proportion,” said Steve Jones, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

READ MORE: Disturbing Momo Challenge a ‘teachable moment’ social media expert says

These hoaxes echo panics from decades past, like the false belief in the 1980s that teenagers were hearing Satanic messages in rock song lyrics, he said.

“Once the internet is involved in the mix, things get speeded up and they get more widespread,” Jones said.

The most important thing parents can do is to establish an open dialogue with their children about what they’re seeing online and hearing from other children, said Jill Murphy, editor-in-chief at Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based non-profit group focused on kids’ use of media and technology.

“Parents are increasingly frustrated with feeling surprised or caught off guard by what is being put in front of their kids,” she said. Whether the “challenges” are real or not, she said, “they elevate the idea that they may or may not know exactly what their kids are absorbing through these platforms.”

That’s why talking to children is important, she said. “Take the right time to have an age-appropriate conversation, and help your kids understand not everything on the internet is real.”

She said parents should also take advantage of parental settings built into many products and services. Most web browsers can block certain websites, limit what children can see and provide a report about what sites a child visited. Smartphones and tablets can limit screen time and access to apps. YouTube Kids lets parents disable search and turn off “autoplay.” Murphy said these free tools are good enough; no need to pay for third-party parental apps.

Another option is to download apps from shows or channels directly rather than going through streaming services such as YouTube. PBS, Peppa Pig, Nick Jr. and other popular services for kids have their own apps, with pre-screened videos deemed appropriate for kids.

And though it may seem contradictory, going online to research the hoaxes could also help. The Momo hoax was debunked fairly quickly after people questioned it, Jones said. Give weight to trusted news sources and fact-checking sites like Snopes.com.

“Take a deep breath and go online as strange as that may seem in some sense,” he said. “Do some research and try to figure it out for yourself.”

Mae Anderson, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

BYELECTION: Eight contenders vie for council seat in North Saanich

Byelection to fill vacant council seat set for April 6

Purple Day marks long journey for Gorge resident

Legislative Assembly to recognize epilepsy on Tuesday

More people are hauling themselves to Greater Victoria

Victoria ranks second in U-Haul’s migration survey, behind Kingston

Increasing cloudiness with a high of 12 C for today

A look ahead at this week’s forecast

Stay alert for spring sweepers on Greater Victoria highways

Motorists asked to be on the lookout as road crews prepare for spring

Mueller finds no Trump collusion, leaves obstruction open

But while Mueller fully ruled out criminal collusion, he was more circumspect on presidential obstruction of justice

Woman wants Tofino to get a nude beach

“They may enjoy a surf and then walk around naked and just be free.”

Ice climbers scale Canada’s tallest waterfall on Vancouver Island

Ice climbers Chris Jensen, Will Gadd and Peter Hoang made history

Sparks fly as SUV speeds wrong way down Highway 1 trying to flee RCMP

Captured on video, the vehicle headed westbound against oncoming traffic before crashing

Fundraising campaign launched for man caught in SilverStar avalanche

In only two days, the GoFundMe surpassed its $15,000 goal

B.C. doctor fined $5,000 for accessing records of woman pregnant with his child

Doctor admits to accessing records of the woman carrying his child

Video service to compete with Netflix, Amazon expected from Apple on Monday

The iPhone has long been Apple’s marquee product and main money maker, but sales are starting to decline

Kootenay city councillor starts nationwide climate caucus for municipal politicians

Climate Leadership Caucus has 57 members including seven mayors

Edmonton judge to rule on whether Omar Khadr’s sentence has expired

Canada’s top court ruled punishment handed Khadr for alleged acts committed in Afghanistan when he was 15 was to be a youth sentence

Most Read