I hardly need to weigh in because I already did – in depth, last summer, at the peak of the last Momo wave. But I will only to highlight the best thinking I’ve seen this go round and add 4 points – lessons from this – to consider when the next wave hits (because this will certainly not be the last, and why reinvent the wheel every time?). First the points:
- Who’s the (potential) victim, anyway? If we really want to be helpful we need to understand a fundamental truth of online victimization: Not all children and teens are equally at risk online. Yet every response I see to these viral scares seems to be working from the premise that all young people are sitting ducks. They’re not. We know this from a decade and a half of youth online risk research. It was a key finding in a thorough review of the youth online risk research by a national task force I served on in 2008, and is again confirmed by a major UK study, which found that “current advice on safety fails to take into account [10-16 year-olds’] differing levels of resilience.” Might this inform our messaging and advisories?
- Victims or stakeholders? Not only are young Internet users not an undifferentiated mass of potential victims. They’re not an undifferentiated group of anything, including responders to adults’ technopanics. Might we also see them as stakeholders and potential helpers and change agents? While we model and teach media literacy in “teachable moments” like this, we can also enlist their help in getting to the bottom of these hoaxes and spreading their research, rational thought and intelligent responses, right? At the very least, ask them to show you how they block and report creepy messages and senders, encourage them to do so. Help them exercise their powers for good, big or small.
- The “again” part: Remember that social media is global, that what we’re seeing is rarely new. These media scares move in waves that peak and trough at different times in different parts of the world but exploit the same triggers: fear for our children, fears about technology and concerns about suicide. It can help to be aware of those common characteristics and look for the facts about specific panics. Use Internet search to see where the thing seems to have started or peaked. Then you will likely find a smart, media literate source – people who’ve done some solid research because their country was affected early on and they wanted to stop the harm in their country. In the case of Blue Whale a few years ago, with its origins in Russia, the most informed source I could find was the head of Bulgaria’s Safer Internet Centre, Georgi Apostolov, who knew a lot about clickbait and hoaxes coming out of Russia (and rallied all the stakeholders, including law enforcement, to stop the Blue Whale hoax from taking off in his country). I noticed that, in many countries throughout the extended Blue Whale scare, news outlets and even helper institutions showed little awareness that that they themselves could be continuing and contributing to the problem.
- What about spreading the truth? Buying into misinformation and then spreading it as if it’s a thing increases the potential for harm. It’s still true, maybe more so now, in this global media environment, that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” as FDR said in his first inaugural address. He was talking about the “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified” kind, which perfectly describes Momo. For Pete’s sake, it’s “a hoax,” Prof. Justin Patchin wrote this week. But why is it important to spread the facts rather than misinformation? Consider this from researchers at the University of Guelph in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology: “Exposure to peer social norms that favored risk taking predicted a significant increase in risk taking.” Or this from the social norms research: “Much if not most of the harm done by negative peer influences occurs through one’s misperception of the norm,” wrote Prof. Wesley Perkins.
So what do you think? Wouldn’t it be great to have some research on how youth respond to a viral media scare and spread that?
Here are the best responses and tips I’ve seen on this latest Momo wave:
- “Don’t Panic: What Parents Really Need to Know about ‘Momo Challenge’,” by British parent and videogames exert Andy Robertson
- “How to not fall for viral scares” at Wired.com, with wisdom from media literacy professor Whitney Phillips at Syracuse University and Dr. Monica Bulger, senior fellow at the Future of Privacy Forum
- Level-headed perspective from Prof. Justin Patchin at the Cyberbullying Research Center
- My post about dealing with Momo and other media scares when the former first seemed to peak in South America last summer and what I learned from covering the Blue Whale scare.