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How to Parent in the Age of Cyberbullying, Trolls, and Momo

Even with the best intentions in the world, we can’t monitor everything

Credit: vinnstock/iStock/Getty

BBeing a parent in the digital age brings on more responsibilities than our ancestors prepared us for. Content is available on demand, messages are instant, and lives can be harmed in the blink of an eye. Our lives are busy, and I’m sure we’ve all been guilty of temporarily handing our children over to the digital babysitter. I’ve done it — whether it was because of work, chores, cooking dinner, or just wanting to watch a movie, I’ve been guilty of giving my 5-year-old child a tablet or phone to watch. For the most part, I think I know what he is consuming — Baby Sharks, Ryan ToysReviews, Mario, Minecraft, Kirby gaming videos, or songs about locating mommy and daddy fingers — but I can’t say I know every single thing he watches.

I recall an occasion last year where my 4-year-old was playing with his bigger cousin, whom he adores, and then out of the blue he called her a bitch. Between the shock, horror, and embarrassment, I tried to recall where he would have heard such terminology. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no saint, but it’s not something I tend to use. Shit or fuck’s sake maybe, as I’m easily frustrated, not to mention clumsy. Only a few weeks later, my nephew told me he had a similar issue with his little brother, and it turns out he had heard it from some channels on YouTube. They had since switched to YouTube Kids and the problem seemed to have gone away. I quickly had a chat with my son and told him he was no longer allowed to watch YouTube unsupervised, and showed him the alternative YouTube Kids app. Job done, right?

Tablets are fantastic for educational purposes as well as entertainment. Photo: Niki Shu

A few weeks ago, my husband came across a video on Facebook titled “Cute Rabbit” and saw it as an opportunity to watch a clip with our son about an adorable fluffy animal on the run. Little did they both know, this poor, innocent animal was about to be the victim of some sick minds who decided to shoot a crossbow through it. I think it’s fair to say daddy was not expecting to explain human stupidity and cruelty when he was just expecting some nice digital bonding time.

Earlier this year, we saw a lot of commotion about the “Momo Challenge” — the creepy Japanese bird-like creature supposedly appearing on WhatsApp and YouTube that suggests children try things without their parent’s knowledge. It allegedly starts with simple commands to play “hide and seek” and escalates to acts of violence. It’s been branded a hoax by certain media outlets, like the Guardian, but I think they have missed a trick.

Parents and media outlets are being blamed for creating hysteria and scaremongering. As a parent and someone who works in the digital space, I can see both sides of the coin. I won’t lie — I hold my hands up on spreading word about the potential danger. Social media is sometimes a blessing and a curse, yet it still warrants a place in the 21st century as a key form of content consumption and communication.

Here’s the stats bit. According to Statista in 2017:

Globally, 2.46 billion people on are social media, with an expectation of 3.02 billion by 2021. That’s a lot of people and the top platforms by users/views are Facebook and YouTube. More than 71 percent of internet users are social media users.

There is a saying: “Act in haste, repent at leisure.” This is one of those occasions where I do not regret alerting other parents to what I saw as a potential danger. Do I feel like a fool? Yes, to some extent, but I have no regrets.

Social media outlets, such as YouTube and Facebook, have limited and grossly inadequate tools.

I think where Momo was different, and where I felt most alarmed, was the potential threat of someone, or something, telling our child not to say anything to adults, or else there would be consequences. It sounded like what we’ve heard about pedophiles and how they target children.

Ultimately, I think it begs the question: What does it mean to be a parent in the digital age?

CContent censorship is something I mainly think about in terms of the certification around movies, games, or even the 9 p.m. watershed. Whether we listen to the guidelines or not, at least we have someone watching over us who has vetted this content. But social media outlets, such as YouTube and Facebook, have limited and grossly inadequate tools. One click and it’s uploaded. We have the capability to report and flag content after the event, but by that time it may be too little, too late. It’s like allowing your child to see the Kamasutra and then telling them to ignore what they’ve seen or heard.

In the Guardian article, Kat Tremlett, Harmful Content Manager at U.K. Safer Internet Centre, said, “We almost need to stop talking about the issue for it not to be an issue any more.” Of course, this is in relation to the fear that vulnerable people are at risk by content like this encouraging them to think of self-harm. That’s another subject, but on the matter of the Momo Challenge, Blue Whale, or the disturbing footage of Peppa Pig on YouTube in what seems to be a feature of the Walking Dead, I disagree — there is a lesson to be learned here that many are overlooking.

In the digital age, we have the extra burden of things our parents knew nothing about.

As a parent, we teach our children about most dangers, such as looking both ways before crossing a road, not taking sweets from strangers, not running with scissors, or touching a hot stove. In the digital age, we have the extra burden of things our parents knew nothing about like online grooming, cyberbullying, inappropriate content, and so forth.

We are only seeing the start of these problems since devices are more readily available and a lot of content is free. Advancing technologies also have a role to play in the problem, suggesting more content based on what has been consumed already.

As parents, we’ve tried to take precautionary steps such as locking down our Wi-Fi, content and IP filtering, locked down devices and apps, and time allocation.

I’ve seen some articles and posts from parents about removing YouTube or YouTube Kids completely, allowing them only to watch Cbeebies or Netflix. While that is great for the babies and toddlers, if you’re doing this for children who can talk, just make sure you’re not creating an artificial bubble.

Absolutely take the necessary steps to minimize inappropriate content, as you see fit. But even with the best intentions in the world, we still can’t monitor everything and, at some point, our children will grow up and want to consume more and more, they might even be a content creator themselves, who knows. Let’s just make sure we prepare them for this, just as we would about cars, stranger danger, and bullies.

UUltimately, online content is massive and growing exponentially every day. We can try and bury our heads in the sand but it’s not going away. Our children will inevitably be exposed to it and we can only do our best to prevent harm and educate them on being digitally aware.

  1. Prevent as much harm as possible, lock down devices, and turn on content filtering.
  2. Talk openly with your child about the potential dangers online (inappropriate content, information sharing). Let them know what to do if they see or hear things they shouldn’t.
  3. Make sure you continue to have an open dialogue so they can alert you straight away to any suspicious activity. You can then take the necessary steps and if needed report it to the social platform(s), police, and/or schools.

The Momo Challenge may very well be a hoax, but I think it’s time to turn this horror show into some lemonade. Times are changing and the way we consume content is evolving, so we all need to be digitally aware.

Mum + Scouser + Optimistic Realist + Tech/Gadget Lover. Digital Content Creator and UX Designer working in AI/ML

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