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the figure from the supposed "momo challenge"
March 7, 2019

More than Momo: Online safety should be a constant conversation

By Dr. Tony DeBono, child psychologist

By now, you’ve probably heard of at least one of the numerous internet challenges that have reportedly targeted our youth. The Momo Challenge is the latest to enter the picture, and though debunked as a hoax, it has raised fair concern among parents. The Blue Whale Challenge, Tide Pod Challenge, and others like them have sparked similar fears about what’s lurking within our children’s tablets. Unfortunately, the concern usually fades before we can establish healthier online habits within our families. Let’s make this time different.

Blurred lines between virtual and reality

There’s no doubt the internet can be a risky place for unsupervised kids. Even with parental controls on, our kids can be exposed to content that affects their mental health.

Their two worlds are seamlessly integrated

Because most kids spend a lot of their time on devices, it’s important for parents to be aware of what their children are seeing online, and keep the lines of communication open. If you grew up pre-smartphone, it’s hard to imagine just how much the online experience affects kids. But Gen Z doesn’t distinguish between “real life” and social media in the same way we do. Their two worlds are seamlessly integrated, and what they see online can affect them as much, or more than face-to-face interactions.

Why does this content keep popping up?

Social media clout is big business. Even people who aren’t profiting from their posts get a thrill from going viral. Why? “Success,” measured by likes, views, and retweets, plays into the positive feedback loop that revs up our brain’s pleasure centres. When we get a positive response, we feel good, and that makes us want to repeat the action.

When we share viral challenges, even as a warning, we are to some degree feeding into this cycle. The old adage that “there is no such thing as bad publicity” often rings true for people behind these concerning challenges.

The young brain’s pleasure centre

This positive feedback loop also exists in developing brains, and participating in these challenges can play into the same emotions in kids as they do in the individuals who start these trends.

Talk to your child about using social media for validation. Remind them that while likes and views may be very important to them, the trade-off to achieve them isn’t always worth it. These can be big and difficult conversations. Try to incorporate them into regular chats so your kids become comfortable with the topic.

Many kids worry their social media privileges will be revoked if they raise a concern with you. If that happens, they’ll become less likely to talk to you about what they see. When you see something that worries you, try to become more involved rather than limiting your child’s access. It will build trust and make them more likely to turn to you in the future.

Practical tips for parents

• Inform and empower yourself by reading service agreements so you know what your kids are signing up for

• Use parental controls, but also be aware of their limitations

• Talk to your child regularly about what they’re seeing online. Keeping communication lines open will make them more likely to come to you with their concerns.

• Set limits around social media use, and stick to them.

• Encourage your kids to look for validation offline in accomplishments such as mastering a new skill, or doing a good deed for a neighbour.

• If you suspect your child is having significant difficulties because of their online interactions, talk to your primary care provider

Learn more tips for improving your family’s technology use.