A few weeks ago, a woman posted a question in a large Facebook group of writers who are also mothers. She asked us to share our greatest fear related to our children. The responses might have shocked the generation of parents before us.
The top-cited concern was about a child getting shot, either in a school or otherwise. While the odds of being killed in a school shooting are extremely low, the images and stories of dead children massacred in their schools are seared in our minds. That’s traumatic for survivors, and anxiety-provoking for witnesses and children who live with that reality.
The second most common fear was that a child might commit suicide. The rate of teen suicide has been rising. The number of children hospitalized for thinking about or attempting suicide has doubled in less than a decade, according to a 2018 study published in the journal of Pediatrics.
Depression and anxiety among young people have skyrocketed. A new Pew Research Center study found that the vast majority of teens see these illnesses as major problems among their peers. Experts continue to debate the factors fueling the mental health crisis many young people are facing today.
Parents realize how serious these issues have become, as reflected in the suicide response and others that followed it, such as bullying. We don’t know for sure if smartphones and social media are direct causes of these problems, but we cast a suspicious eye on the technology in which our kids are immersed. The number of hours spent with screens daily can’t be healthy, and research suggests the same.
We didn’t grow up this way. Our parents likely worried most about risky behavior, like drug use, or car accidents. But parenting fears are tied to generations like the tide to the moon. Our fears are pulled by what we can’t control, the unfamiliar and omnipresent.
By now, it seems every parent on the planet has been warned about the “Momo Challenge.” Even Kim Kardashian warned her 129 million followers on Instagram about it. An image of a sculpture called “Mother Bird,” created by Japanese artist Keisuke Aisawa, was hijacked into creepy internet lore. The bulging-eyed, birdlike female face allegedly appeared in YouTube videos targeting children or WhatsApp messages and encouraged kids to hurt themselves and others, culminating in -- what else? -- suicide.
Numerous media organizations, schools and law enforcement agencies warned the public about it, although scant evidence showed that children were actually falling for the so-called challenge. It was later described as a “hoax,” although that’s not quite accurate, either. Some people likely did see this unsettling image, perhaps delivering a frightening message.
Momo tapped into something primal for parents. Momo is knowing you can’t control everything your children will ever see or experience on the internet. Momo is the plethora of terrible content, shady corporate practices and dangerous people as close as the phone in your child’s hand. Momo is knowing that the current levels of screen time are affecting our kids in ways we don’t entirely understand or even know. Momo is the outsized consequences and ruined futures for stupid mistakes on social media. Momo is the cyberbully we can’t see, and schools can’t control. Momo is feeling outmatched and outnumbered by technology’s pull and unable to protect our kids the way we want to. Momo is the report about a 9-year-old boy in Colorado dying by suicide after being bullied by classmates.
I talked to a father about what he had heard about the Momo challenge. He said he knew it wasn’t a real threat. “All these kids use all these different apps now,” he said. He named a popular messaging one that can be used to chat anonymously in large groups. “That’s the one that’s scary,” he said.