Momo—the stringy-haired, bird-faced puppet lady taunting children—is an overhyped hoax, but no one seems to have told schools, which are banning YouTube in response.
In the so-called “Momo Challenge,” the creepy figure allegedly tells children to complete increasingly dangerous stunts, such as leaving a stove on, supposedly ending with suicide. But the videos are an urban legend, and YouTube says it has no evidence of the trend on its site aside from some obviously staged hoax videos.
Nevertheless, Florida’s Palm Beach County School District blocked YouTube for its 193,000 students last week, out of fear that children would see Momo. Stockton, California’s Lincoln Unified School District went on a similar digital lockdown Thursday. The same day, Arkansas’ Jacksonville North Pulaski School District blocked YouTube searches for “Momo” on school computers.
Palm Beach County sent a district-wide email to the principals of a hundred-plus schools on Friday, announcing a temporary YouTube ban on school computers, WPTV first reported. The email reportedly claimed students had seen Momo appear while they watched educational videos.
A modern urban legend, the Momo panic has spread through unconfirmed rumors like these. Last week, Kim Kardashian shared a post claiming Momo appeared unexpectedly in the middle of children’s videos. Conveniently, these instances never seem to be documented beyond word of mouth. One much-hyped death associated with the videos originates from an old, uncorroborated report out of Argentina.
YouTube pushed back on the claims. "We want to clear something up regarding the Momo Challenge: We've seen no recent evidence of videos promoting the Momo Challenge on YouTube," the company tweeted last week. "If you see videos including harmful or dangerous challenges on YouTube, we encourage you to flag them to us immediately."
The original Momo is already gone. The creepy image is a picture of a statue, which disintegrated last fall, its sculptor said this week. “The children can be reassured Momo is dead—she doesn’t exist and the curse is gone,” artist Keisuke Aiso said in a statement.
But other school districts across the nation took similar measures to the Palm Beach district. The Lincoln Unified district in California blocked YouTube on Thursday, but in a statement to parents, appeared to acknowledge that the videos were a hoax.
“We have many safeguards in place to protect our students,” the statement read, according to Stockton’s Record. “You may have heard about a threatening hoax hitting the internet media outlets. LUSD has the proper device-monitoring systems in place to protect students on school devices. [...] While there is currently no evidence that this particular challenge has resulted in direct harm to children, we do think it is important to understand and to be aware of current social media challenges, as well as how to best approach these types of challenges with your children.”
Arkansas’ Jacksonville North Pulaski School District enacted a partial ban last Thursday.
“In an effort to ensure the safety of our scholars, our JNP technology experts have blocked the word search ‘Momo’ on YouTube,” the district tweeted above a story warning of the apparent Momo threat. “We will continue to monitor the situation and will communicate with other surrounding school districts to help identify any future problems.”
The districts weren’t the first authorities to make public statements about the hoax. In August, Florida’s St. John’s County Sheriff’s office released a statement warning locals about Momo (the ever-evolving urban legend was described as a texting or social media game at the time). “Our Intelligence Unit has seen some talk about the game making the rounds on the web, but we have not had reported incidents in St. Johns County,” the office noted.
Elsewhere in Florida, Pasco County’s sheriff released a similar Twitter statement that month. Like all the other offices, they hadn’t seen the videos, either. But they helped spread the eerie-eyed Momo figure with a picture in their tweet.
“We haven’t received any reports on this in Pasco but we merely want to share this warning that law enforcement agencies from several countries are putting out,” the office conceded. “We want to remind parents to always be aware of what their kids are doing on social media.”