Here we are again. Remember “Blue Whale,” then “Momo”? Well, the B.W. challenge, or self-harm “game,” has been warmed over and repackaged with a new name and face with the creepiness of a Momo. This time it’s a weird, scary version of the cartoon character Goofy. [I don’t know—does familiarity make it less scary or more so?] In any case, its predecessors were both hoaxes, so it would be hard for this one not to be.
This latest viral meme, oddly, has a human name: “Jonathan Galindo” (hereafter J.G.), also called “Cursed Goofy.” The rest is murky—what platform, when and where in the world it first appeared—murkier than B.W., which got its start in Russia, and about the same as Momo. KnowYourMeme.com says this version started on TikTok; a fairly credible Redditor who put some time into researching it says it started on Discord and independent news site Heavy.com reports that it first appeared on Instagram! You pick.
We know the Momo image was misappropriated from a sculpture created by the artist Keisuke Aiso who runs the Japanese special effects company Link Factory. And we’re already pretty sure the “Goofy Man” face of the J.G. meme came from film industry artist and mask maker James Fazzaro, aka @duskysamcat (Dusky Sam) on Twitter and @samuel_canini on Instagram. Just as with Momo, the artist’s work has been misappropriated because it’s creepy. The artists seem to have nothing to do with this.
A range of intentions
There are different variations on the J.G. name in social media screen names and accounts—with intentional misspellings, numbers and keyboard symbols (usually trying to bypass algorithms). If you see versions of it on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Discord or TikTok—all platforms where it has appeared—they’re not all bad, and they represent a whole range of intention. There are the opportunists just capitalizing on the sudden notoriety to get more followers, sleep-deprived video streamers glad to have something to say nothing about, the scammers trying to get you to click on links to bad pages, creeps looking for vulnerable people to manipulate, trolls trafficking in fear and genuine helpers giving good advice. What I’ve seen more and more of over the past few days is helpers promoting skepticism. Good on them! Some are gamers with significant followings. Some have trouble pronouncing the name “Galindo” and most refer to a TikTok account that is now down. Generally, the information they offer about the hoaxes’ backstories and impacts is sketchy (they could all use some media literacy ed), but the advice about blocking, not clicking on links and not to worry that the character could know where you live is solid (for examples, see “Related links” below).
What’s different this time
- J.G. not likely to be as big. It’s so derivative. This is the third hoax of this sort, and it seems each time the virality has lessened in impact and duration. The explanation could be quite simple: Once we’ve learned something, we can’t unlearn it. Once we’ve seen a viral hoax, we can’t buy into the next one. Now, there are a whole lot of Internet users who never encountered any of these, so the education must continue, but it’s good to see all the healthy skepticism associated with this one.
- Users are helping their peers. I’m not saying third time’s a charm, but in this way too, we’re seeing the Internet’s users benefiting from experience. Fellow users, for example gamers and video streamers, have a lot of credibility among their fans. This will help their parents and educators get the messaging right. We can sit down with our young gamers and watch popular streamers, compare and contrast the information and advice they’re giving, note what points they agree on and decide together what makes sense to all of us.
- It’s little kids who especially need support, the ones who aren’t old enough to know there was a last time and who have active imaginations and need the patience and perspective of adults close to them. I say this because just a few months ago I observed focus groups with US 7-11 year-olds who talked about how—still, 18-24 months later—just thinking about the Momo image scares them. [More on how to help them below.]
- There’s less news coverage this time. At least in North America. So far. A search on Google News late last week turned up links to a number of news outlets in other languages, but only one in English (with pretty balanced coverage) from Heavy.com, an independent news site based in New York City. That was still the case in my more recent search this week. Don’t hold me to it, but we may well be past the peak of this thing.
- The platforms have acted more quickly against J.G. than in the previous waves, based on my own research on several of them. In many cases, they’ve somehow been able to distinguish between accounts aiming to harm and those trying to help. I haven’t been able to find any of the former and have found a bunch of helper accounts on multiple platforms. TikTok says it has disabled search for the name and variations of it and is removing any accounts it finds. The one that KnowYourMeme.com said was the “original” account on TikTok, oddly misspelled @jonathangilando54, is gone). Other platforms have also disabled or reduced searchability—of account names and hashtags—as well as removing all recommendations to J.G.-related content. I’ve also heard from platforms that, when staff in other countries see news about a social media hoax, they reach out to local nonprofit partners to develop education specifically designed for social media users in their own countries. Facebook is now working with 100 helplines around the world so they can be informed about scary hoaxes if people call about them. This is progress, people!
For working with kids
As creepy as these hoaxes are, working with our kids doesn’t have to be hard. Yes absolutely the subject of the “Blue Whale Challenge” is self-harm and suicide and we always take those seriously, so it’s fine to talk with our kids about any concerns we have, especially at a time when we’re all feeling pretty fragile. Ask them if they’re aware of this thing and whether or what about it bothers them. With each of these B.W. hoaxes, the focus seems to be less on the 50-step “game” and more on its creepy new face.
Little kids typically don’t want to be scared and, if they’re exposed to it, they’ll likely tell you about what they saw so you can help them feel safe. As kids approach middle school, it’s pretty developmentally appropriate to seek out scary stuff in a social sort of way (remember telling ghost stories on sleepovers?). For example, when one of my kids was in middle school, he and his friends would get together every weekend to watch horror films together late into the night, and some kids like to go online together and toy with the people behind creepy accounts. Sure they test limits, but they also have each other’s backs.
The 2 key tips
Just be sure your kids know 1) to ignore creepy messages and block the people who send them (even little kids often know to do that, I’ve found) and 2) never to click on links sent by random people—in texts, social media direct messages, game chat, whatever. If they ask you why not to click, just tell them that too often Internet nasties try to get people to click on links that take them to bad Web pages that download viruses to people’s devices or try to grab your IP address so they can use that to make you think they know where you live (they can’t know that with an IP address, but they try to make you think that so they can mess with your head and manipulate you).
Now about that creepypasta face. It’s awful because it scares little kids. First, little children aren’t terribly likely to be exposed to J.G., except maybe through older siblings or friends. But if they are, and they feel scared, they’re very likely to come to you for comfort and perspective. If you’re not sure they will, teach them from the moment you put a connected device in their little hands that you’re there for them, and if they ever see something or get any communications that upsets them, you want them to come tell you about it. [See also “Talking points for families” in my August 2018 post on Momo.]
Teach kids refusal skills
I love what I’ve learned from my friends at Committee for Children, providers of social-emotional learning for schools all over the world. If anybody knows child development, they do. They train educators to teach children refusal skills—not just refusing to comply with abusive adults, but also refusing to look at media and communications that upset them. CFC teaches them to recognize, acknowledge and assert their feelings, whether they see something upsetting, a fellow player trash-talks them in a game, a peer dares them to watch something violent or a creepy adult sends them a message in social media. Kids deserve to know they have a say in what they experience—and if they ever feel uncomfortable with refusing or blocking, they can report what happened to an adult they trust. CFC not only teaches kids they can be respectfully assertive when they talk with adults, it teaches them how.
Orchids and dandelions
An important part of all this where children are concerned is their level of sensitivity to the media, people and situations they encounter. Have you heard of the orchids vs. dandelions metaphor? It comes from Thomas Boyce, an emeritus professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco. He has studied the human stress response for almost 40 years, NPR reports. He told radio host Dave Davies that most kids are like dandelions, which bounce back after getting trampled. Some children are quite “unflappable and unfazed” by things that happen around them, online or offline. A minority are what Dr. Boyce calls “orchid children.” They’re much more sensitive and “biologically reactive” to their environments, “which makes it harder for them to deal with stressful situations,” Boyce says. It’s the same in digital spaces because we know from the research that the kids we find most vulnerable online are those who are most vulnerable in offline life. So most kids are going to be just fine when they run into creepy stuff online. Parents, you—not alarmist reporters—are the ones who know best how sensitive or resilient your child is, and thus how safe they are online.
We can’t stop viral hoaxes from happening, unfortunately, but if the aim is to remove all risk from our children’s lives, it’s a bit misguided. As EU Kids Online reported seven years ago, risk and resilience go hand-in-hand. Kids can’t develop resilience without some exposure to risk and adversity. Of course we never want vulnerable children to be exposed to more than they can handle, and we want to help those who are. But less fear and more nuanced understanding of how our new media environment works—which our kids can help us with—will serve all children better than overreacting to each new hoax that comes along.
- One streamer on YouTube shared some ridiculous news coverage at the start of his July 10 video (see that if you want to know what not to believe in the news)
- One of the better helper videos is a 10 min.video that, as of this writing has 105,902 views from YT creator piranharoni, who sounds like he’s British and has 5.22k subscribers. He doesn’t get all his facts right, but his advice is good.
- Another July 10 YouTube video, “The Blue Whale Game,” is rapidly approaching 1 million views and comes from SomeOrdinaryGamers with 2.01 million subscribers. Again, the “reporting” is inaccurate but the advice is good—including “never use a free VPN [virtual private network]; they literally harvest and sell your data”; “If you block and don’t click [on links creepy people send you, you’ll be fine—they’re just trying to make gullible people fall for some dumb stuff”; “you can’t be hacked even if you respond to a social media DM [direct message]; the only way they can hack you is if you click on a link to a phishing page.”
- My 4 posts on Blue Whale in 2017. I’ve been writing about youth and digital media for more than 20 years, and those four posts, particularly the first one that March, got more comments than any previous post on any subject—posts representing so many countries.
- Previous posts on Momo
- About how a child’s online safety works best from the inside out; start with what’s going on with the child
- “Media siege mentality: Antidote for parents“