The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The ‘Momo Challenge’: A sinister threat to young people or an urban myth?

The “Momo Challenge.” (St. John’s County Sheriff’s Office Facebook)

Orb-like eyes, ringed with dark circles, bulge out from a pallid face framed by stringy black hair. A creepy smile stretches from cheek to cheek.

Her name is “Momo” and she is the face of a viral Internet game, believed to be spreading via the free messaging service WhatsApp and sparking worldwide warnings, including some recently by U.S. police agencies, about its potential to harm young people who may be lured into playing. In addition to WhatsApp, references to “Momo” also have circulated on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

The game, which many are calling the “Momo Challenge,” requires players to complete escalating tasks that are usually dangerous and involve self-harm. But, given the challenge’s mysterious origins and the unreliability of news reports linking it to actual harm, some question whether it’s simply another one of the many hoaxes that breed on the Internet.

Officials in multiple countries believe Momo’s final challenge is suicide and the game is rumored to be linked to at least three recent cases of minors who killed themselves in Argentina, Colombia and India.

In July, a 12-year-old girl in a Buenos Aires province was found hanging from a tree in her family’s backyard, the Buenos Aires Times reported. After confirming the girl’s death was a suicide, authorities began investigating potential ties to what the newspaper described as “the so-called Momo Game, a WhatsApp-based terror game.”

The girl’s cellphone was located near her body and police said hacking into the phone revealed “footage and WhatsApp chats,” according to the Buenos Aires Times. Investigators believed the girl intended “to upload the video to social media” as part of a challenge related to the “Momo game.”

More recently, another 12-year-old girl and a 16-year-old boy in Barbosa, Colombia, committed suicide within 48 hours of each other, Caracol Radio, a local station, reported. Police said it appeared the pair knew each other and were participating in the challenge last month, according to RCN Radio.

“Young people are accessing it,” Janier Londono, government secretary of Barbosa in the Antioquia region, told Caracol Radio, “the game has several challenges, they are accessing them and, in the end, it leads to suicide to finish the game.”

None of these circumstantial reports tying the game to suicides have been proved. Suicide, experts say, is rarely connected to a single event or cause, with some 90 percent of those who take their own lives already suffering from mental illness, often untreated depression.

In a statement to Fox News, a spokesman from WhatsApp said the company, which is owned by Facebook, “cares deeply about the safety of our users,” adding, “It’s easy to block any phone number and we encourage users to report problematic messages to us so we can take action.” Facebook could not be reached for comment.

Similar to many Internet-based trends, the origin of the “Momo Challenge” is murky.

According to authorities in Mexico, the game appears to have started in a Facebook group where members were “challenged to start communications with an unknown number, despite warnings.” Now, there are multiple phone numbers proclaiming to be “Momo” with area codes from Japan, Mexico and Colombia, Insider reported.

Given that WhatsApp is a private and encrypted messaging service, the veracity of these accounts and reported interactions with “Momo” are difficult to prove. Coupled with many saying they have been unable to get a response from “Momo” and the challenge’s extreme endgame, some are calling it an Internet hoax designed to generate paranoia among adults.

“The Momo thing is much more akin to an urban legend right now,” said ReignBot, a YouTuber famous for videos exploring creepy things on the Internet. ReignBot’s video about the “Momo Challenge” has more than 2 million views.

“People are claiming what Momo is and what Momo does, but not that many people have actually interacted with the account,” she said. “Finding screenshots of interactions with Momo is nearly impossible and you’d think there’d be more for such a supposedly widespread thing.”

Larry Magid, a technology reporter, also tweeted that the game is “likely a hoax.”

Even where “Momo” herself came from was disputed. Initially, she was believed to be the creation of a Japanese artist known for combining human and animal parts to create grotesque dolls. However, she was later confirmed to be a sculpture called “Mother Bird” created by Link Factory, a Japanese special effects company, reported.

But, its bizarre genesis aside, if the challenge is meant to simply incite panic, it’s working. During the past few months, law enforcement agencies around the world have issued warnings about the risks of partaking in the game.

“Don’t meddle with her,” the crime branch of the Odisha Police in India tweeted. “She is dangerous, dirty and disastrous to your life.”

The tweet, which featured a cartoon illustration of “Momo” alongside a noose, also included a link to a two-page advisory with information on what to do if contacted by an account purporting to be “Momo” and tips for parents to help them figure out if their children are playing.

Mexican authorities tweeted an informational handout, warning that the game could create an opportunity for people to “take or steal personal information,” as well as “generate physical and psychological disorders.”

Even countries in which no incidents related to the challenge have been reported are making efforts to educate parents.

Spain’s Civil Guard and national police tweeted separate warnings in July, telling people to not add “Momo” on WhatsApp and to ignore trends that seem “viral” or “fashionable.”

In the U.S., two sheriff’s offices in Florida posted about the game on social media.

“HEY PARENTS — DO YOU KNOW MOMO? YOUR KIDS MIGHT,” the St. John’s County Sheriff’s Office wrote on Facebook.

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office tweeted last month that they wanted to “remind parents to always be aware of what their kids are doing on social media.” But the tweet linked to one of the world’s most sensationalist tabloids, the Sun in Britain.

Some governments have even taken precautions beyond issuing warnings. In Pakistan, for example, the government issued a countrywide ban on suicidal games such as the “Momo Challenge” over the weekend, the Express Tribune reported.

“These games don’t have any place in Pakistan as they are destroying the youth and are one of the key players in suicides taking place worldwide,” said Pakistan’s Federal Information Technology Minister Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui.

It’s no surprise that any mention of a viral social media challenge believed to end in suicide would cause parents, educators and government officials to immediately worry. Several years ago, the Blue Whale Challenge sparked widespread concern when it was revealed to be assigning players tasks — 50 daily challenges — that largely involved self-mutilation, The Washington Post’s Kyle Swenson and Amber Ferguson reported. The last task was suicide.

The Blue Whale Challenge was reportedly responsible for at least 130 deaths in Russia, the country from which many believed it originated.

Whether the “Momo Challenge” is real or not, technology experts say its an important reminder for parents to be aware of what their children are doing on social media.

Younger users, ranging from 12 to 14 years old, are particularly vulnerable, Stanton Greenawalt, a cybersecurity professor at Horry-Georgetown Technical College in South Carolina, told WMBF.

WhatsApp has “a billion users,” Greenawalt said. “You don’t know who or where they’re contacting you.”