A grotesque image went viral online this week, with many newspapers and news sites reporting it was part of a challenge game that encourages children to self-harm.
The ‘Momo challenge’ has been featured across media in Scotland and the world, showing an image reportedly shared via messenger services like WhatsApp.
Ferret Fact Service looked at these claims and found them to be Mostly False.
The ‘Momo challenge’ came to prominence online in July 2018 after the Buenos Aires Times reported on a 12-year-old girl who took her own life in an Argentinian town called Ingeniero Maschwitz. The newspaper reported that police were investigating whether there was a link to the “Momo game”, describing it as a “WhatsApp-based terror game that originates from Japan”.
Similar reports came from Indian newspapers after two suicides in the north Bengal region.
The link to Japan appears to be the original image of ‘Momo’, which shows a grotesque image of a girl with dark hair and large eyes, and a distorted smile. Ferret Fact Service is not posting the image to avoid unnecessary spreading of the meme, but it does appear in links on this fact check.
This originated as a sculpture by a Japanese artist studio called Link Factory, and was displayed in a Japanese gallery in July 2016. A cropped version without the bird-like legs was reposted by Instagram user nanaakooo in July 2016. This is the image that was attached to the viral ‘challenge’.
A cropped and straightened version was posted on Reddit’s r/creepy board in July 2018, receiving more than 4,000 upvotes and 900 comments within 48 hours.
In February 2019 the story went viral again, this time hitting Scotland. The Herald newspaper published an article on February 25 featuring an interview with a mother whose son had reportedly been traumatised by the image appearing in a YouTube prank video.
The mother told the newspaper: “He showed me an image of the face on my phone and said that she had told him to go into the kitchen drawer and take out a knife and put it into his neck.”
This was then picked up by outlets across Scotland including the Scottish Sun, Daily Record and the Scotsman. In total, 41 Facebook Pages linked to Scottish media companies posted about Momo in 72 hours. Collectively these posts garnered more than 14,652 likes, shares or comments from members of the public over this time.
In one of a series of articles about the phenomenon which was later removed, the Scottish Sun’s headline was “Momo ‘suicide challenge’ affects three-in-ten kids”.
Despite this and numerous other news outlets linking the image to a game which encourages children to commit suicide or self-harm, there is very little solid evidence linking the two together.
Many reports linked the game to 130 suicides among Russian teenagers. This appears to be a conflation with similar stories around the ‘Blue Whale’ challenge, a similar game which gained notoriety last year. The number has not been confirmed by police or mental health groups, and originates from a Russian article which used anecdotal evidence from suicides which took place around the time the game emerged.
There is no strong evidence to link the Momo phenomenon to suicides among young people, according to Digital safety charity Parent Zone, who said: “There isn’t much evidence of a child actually being harmed and what seems to be happening is that the image is spreading because people are using the image in their profiles.”
The Samaritans told The Guardian newspaper: “Currently we’re not aware of any verified evidence in this country or beyond linking Momo to suicide”.
While many articles said the challenge was being spread via YouTube, the site’s owner Google said: “We’ve seen no recent evidence of videos promoting the Momo Challenge on YouTube”.
The Scottish Sun’s article claimed the challenge had affected 3 in 10 children. The evidence for this came from a survey by online parenting website, Channel Mum, which produced a guide for parents to help children affected by the challenge. However, the full results, methodology or format for the survey has not been released and so should not be regarded as reliable at this time.
In response to questions by Ferret Fact Service a spokesperson for Channel Mum said the survey was “a snapshot conducted on our site over Monday and Tuesday this week”.
The channel also confirmed that after the story gained prominence, it discouraged media outlets from including the survey results in articles, “until the veracity of the story is proven”.
Many articles relating to the Channel Mum survey were taken down, although the statistics are still being used in pieces produced by the Daily Mirror and a number of others.
Ferret Fact Service verdict: Mostly False
While the image certainly has appeared on social media, there is no evidence that the Momo challenge is a significant danger to children, or particularly widespread. The claim that 3 in 10 children have been affected by the game is from a survey which does not appear to have been conducted with formal polling methodology, and the organisation which took the survey has distanced itself from the results. While many outlets linked the game to suicides, there is very little solid evidence of this.
Ferret Fact Service (FFS) is a non-partisan fact checker, working to the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles. All the sources used in our checks are publicly available and the FFS fact-checking methodology can be viewed here. Want to suggest a fact check? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or join our Facebook group.