Images of a demonic chicken lady are stoking panic across the globe, with warnings of a dangerous “suicide game” that targets children on social media. But behind the hysteria linked to the so-called “Momo challenge” is an issue far more revealing: This urban legend is likely little more than a hoax fueled by media reports and parents’ fears about their kids’ online activity.
It’s no wonder why the Momo challenge has been able to capture the fears of adults with a mythical force that’s persisted for months. The headlining image for the “challenge” is undeniably creepy — the stuff of nightmares for children and adults alike. It’s as if someone combined Voldemort with a bug-eyed version of the girl from The Ring and inexplicably decided her cleavage should transition into oversize chicken legs.
And the underlying challenge, with its messages supposedly encouraging kids to commit violence and self-harm, would be far more harrowing — if there were any discernible evidence proving this is actually a problem.
Experts say there is no indication that children are being driven to suicide since the story went viral. YouTube said previously it had no evidence of videos promoting the challenge, and it’s since demonetized content featuring the signature Momo image that has cropped up since the hysteria bubbled into the mainstream.
We want to clear something up regarding the Momo Challenge: We’ve seen no recent evidence of videos promoting the Momo Challenge on YouTube. Videos encouraging harmful and dangerous challenges are against our policies.— YouTube (@YouTube) February 27, 2019
The Momo challenge is hardly the first suspected craze to seize on the anxieties of adults — just look to past panic over supposedly dangerous teen trends that ended up being an overblown internet hoax. And as is the case for many spurts of viral panic, the Momo challenge has been elevated into a global phenomenon, not because of the stories shared by victims themselves but by the worried adults trying to protect them.
What is the Momo challenge?
According to lore, the Momo challenge is a viral game shared on messaging services like WhatsApp that goads young children into violence or even suicide. Images of the devilish bird-lady supposedly pop up with creepy messages and commands that are said to escalate to extreme violence and horror.
Other iterations of the story claim to feature the terrifying image spliced into children’s programs like Peppa Pig or video games like Fortnight in videos posted to YouTube. Even more news reports say the challenge has spread to Snapchat.
But the reality is it’s a viral hoax.
The signature image for Momo — the possessed-looking chicken lady — predates pretty much every report of the supposed challenge and appears to have nothing to do with the viral sensation. It is a statue called “Mother Bird,” made by artist Keisuke Aisawa who works with the Japanese special effects company Link Factory. Images of the statue from a gallery display first began circulating as early as 2016.
The challenge itself was likely cooked up on a creepypasta subreddit that catalogs horror urban legends. An image of the “Mother Bird” sculpture was uploaded in July 2018, and from there, the myth of “Momo” took hold.
Panicked parents, social media, and local news reports are largely driving the hysteria
Last year, news reports started cropping up in Latin America warning of a “WhatsApp terror game,” starting with a suspected suicide of a 12-year-old girl in Argentina. Police never confirmed a connection to the challenge. But then other reports of a supposed suicide pact emerged out of Colombia, hinting at a broader viral risk — though that also remains unconfirmed. Again, months later, authorities in Mexico reported that children were being targeted and threatened by “El Momo” on Facebook.
By September, stories of the challenge starting capturing the attention of police and the press in the United States.
Momo made its comeback in 2019 after panic swept across the United Kingdom. Schools began issuing stern warnings to parents; police said some videos encouraged young children to “take a knife to their own throat.” Within a matter of days, it evolved into a wholesale craze in the US.
An impassioned post from the Twitter user Wanda Maximoff took off with tens of thousands of retweets before the account was eventually suspended. “Warning! Please read, this is real,” the tweet read. “There is a thing called ‘Momo’ that’s instructing kids to kill themselves,” the attached screenshot of a Facebook post reads. “INFORM EVERYONE YOU CAN.”
Kim Kardashian elevated the story, asking her 129 million Instagram followers to pressure YouTube into taking down the supposedly harmful videos. A flurry of TV reports, along with both local and national news, began breathlessly advising parents on ways to “protect kids from a disturbing internet game.”
Lost in any coverage, however, were any examples of the authenticated versions of the Momo challenge, including screenshots of “threatening messages” or confirmed videos promoting violence.
The Momo challenge is little more than an urban legend. But the panic points to fears of myth turning into reality.
It shouldn’t be too surprising that a viral urban legend (and likely hoax) targeting kids would be able to sweep the globe.
The internet can be a hellscape of unsavory experiences for anyone; parents face the added challenge of wrestling with how to adequately protect their kids without being overbearing. Indeed, inappropriate content often does make it past automated platform security and monitors — just look at YouTube’s persistent struggle with combating child exploitation, online bullying, or extremist conspiracies.
But the hysteria likely wouldn’t have reached its current level of viral infamy had it not been for Slender Man. In the summer of 2014, two 12-year-olds lured a fellow sixth-grader into the woods and stabbed her 19 times, allegedly in hopes of conjuring a dark, mythical being known as the Slender Man. The violent attack became a cultural touchstone defining the power of internet culture in its ability to warp belief systems and reality. It was also used as a cautionary tale for parents around the globe.
But more often than not, seemingly innocuous internet jokes and memes are being taken out of context or dubbed as dangerous trends regardless of whether they actually exist. As the Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz pointed out this week, there’s a host of so-called “deadly teen crazes” that have circulated widely, only to later be debunked.
The Momo challenge has similar trappings as the “Blue Whale challenge,” which was another supposed online suicide game with a series of tasks spread out over 50 days. That internet “game” was ultimately found to be bogus, along with several other waves of panic, like those that falsely suggested hordes of kids were eating Tide Pods or snorting condoms.
None of those were the real problem. Neither is the Momo challenge.