And it’s not just YouTube. There is a Momo who is supposed to haunt Snapchat. There’s another who crashes videos of Fortnite, a uniquely popular game among young children. Momo meets kids where they are — or at least where their parents think they are.
For years, in various online spaces, young people have been writing horror stories, often pseudonymously or in an iterative group process. Their tales are known colloquially as “Creepypasta,” an iteration of the term “copypasta,” shorthand for passages or blocks of text or chain-letter-type stories that are frequently copied and pasted in a given online community. The authors of these posts do so to scare each other, with the occasional bonus of going viral. (The Slender Man character, which inspired multiple games and a feature film, gained popularity through copypasta. Momo’s virality no doubt owes to 2014 stabbing of a young girl by two of her friends, who later said they were influenced by the Slender Man.)
Momo is what happens when the grown-ups start writing copypasta of their own, about their own biggest fears: what their kids are doing on the internet, and what the internet is doing to their kids.
You Do Know Where Your Children Are
The spaces where Momo is believed to flourish share in their tendency to make parents anxious anyway. It’s 10 p.m. — or let’s say 7 a.m., or 5 p.m. — and parents do know where their children are: transfixed by their phones or tablets, rapt by a chain of endlessly recommended YouTube videos made by strangers motivated by advertising dollars.
The older kids are chatting with their friends, or people they say are their friends, and spending countless hours talking to each other in language that, to their parents, may as well be code, in a game that feels like a social universe unto itself. Children spending time with screens is commonly contrasted with children spending time outside, or doing some other supposedly more enriching activity, but the shape of the Momo panic is informed by age-old ideas about “stranger danger.”
It bears some resemblance, too, to the now-vintage fears of back-masked satanic messaging in rock music, a phenomenon that likewise became more common only after the broader culture had begun panicking about it. The satanic music panic is understood by moralizing critics and worried parents alike as the corruption of children animated as much by commercial motives as by ill will or evil. YouTube is, in 2019, is seen as ubiquitous, powerful, and also untamed. It’s a business that can’t, for example, seem to deal with a highly visible Nazi problem. Awful videos have found their way into YouTube kids, repeatedly. The company just announced it has “disabled comments from tens of millions of videos that could be subject to predatory behavior,” meaningly, essentially, videos portraying children. A pro-vaccine nonprofit said it had long ago written off YouTube because its videos were overwhelmed with anti-vaccine content and recommendations. That YouTube is simultaneously one of the largest and most accessible hubs for children’s entertainment is, for a parent, disorienting to say the least.