Don't fall for it: A parent's guide to protecting your kids from online hoaxes
It's a parent's responsibility to protect their children from harm, no matter where that threat of harm comes from. But what if the threat is a hoax?
We've seen recently a rollercoaster of panic from parents trying to protect their kids from a supposed online threat known as the Momo challenge, that has for months been debunked as a hoax.
Yet the panic from parents continued, as did reports in the media and even warnings from celebrites – all of which could have been avoided if parents had done a few simple checks before raising the alarm.
So how can you as a parent protect your children (and yourself) from falling for these hoaxes if you don't even know whether something is not a genuine threat in the first place?
Before I give some help and advice on that, let's look at this latest hoax: the Momo challenge.
The Momo challenge
Momo is a ghoulish character who is said to use social media and other online tools to encourage youngsters to complete dangerous tasks involving self-harm.
The creepy image was copied from a sculpture by Japanese special-effects company Link Factory. Its use in the hoax was condemned by its original artist several months ago.
Even this revelation did not stop the spread – of both the hoax and the warnings about it – continuing for several months afterwards.
The Momo challenge is just the latest in a series of manufactured online hoaxes designed to generate paranoia among adults.
Other online hoaxes
We've had the "blue whale challenge", allegedly linked to numerous teen deaths around the world. The trend later turned out to be a fake.
There was also a challenge that linked kids choking to death to snorting condoms for more YouTube likes (no deaths have been reported).
These hoaxes are carefully designed to grab your attention and incite shock and panic, so you share the information with everyone you know. The designers of the hoax callously tap directly into parents' Achilles heel: their fears regarding their children's safety.
Posting the hoax online fits the designer's aim perfectly because it can travel far and wide online very quickly. This is of course a win from the perpetrators' perspective, whose very aim is to go viral! The more attention they get, the more profit or fame.
What parents should do to help protect your kids from such hoaxes
Hoaxes that threaten your kids one day, and turn out to be fake the next, are mentally and emotionally exhausting for kids and adults. Parents can feel an increasing lack of control.
But this doesn't need to be the case. There are tools and tricks you can apply to help you spot a hoax.
1. Investigate: see if it's real
Even a simple web search of the name of any supposed threat can help you. Add the words "hoax" or "scam" to your search queries and you will very quickly see if there is any real evidence to support the claims of harm you may be hearing about.
2. Help your child investigate authenticity
Use the opportunity to educate your child about these online challenges. When you hear about one, go online with your child and investigate.
This is the perfect opening to help your child understand fake content online. Explain why someone would want to start a hoax to scare people (for example, to achieve fame).
3. Explore alternatives for viewing
You may be concerned about your child using online video streaming services such as YouTube or Facebook, where they could be exposed to any hoax video.
As an alternative, look for other ways for your children to view their favoured content.
4. Avoid causing unnecessary alarm
Before sharing potentially wrong information, do some internet research of your own to check out the accuracy of any threat.
5. Be a critical, alert consumer
We live our lives on the internet, and there is a mass of misleading online information designed to manipulate our thinking.
It's important to read and stay up to date about how the online world operates, and to be critical of what you view and read online.
Ask yourself some basic questions such as:
- who is going to benefit from this online post/article?
- what is the underlying purpose of it?
- is the author/creator trying to sway my thinking, and why?
6. What if you think a threat is genuine?
The online space is always changing. Keeping you and your kids safe online involves being aware of emerging and new safety issues, and committing to a bit of research before you panic.