Managing Momo: Why coddling our kids isn't the way to protect them from harm

(Photo: Unsplash/Christian Wiediger)

This past week another disturbing internet game hit the news – the Momo challenge. The Momo challenge appears as an online 'game' which encourages young people to harm themselves and in some cases even take their own lives.

Some children and families have evidently been seriously affected by it, but news agencies are now warning that reporting on it is sparking mass panic. Kat Tremlett, harmful content manager at the UK Safer Internet Centre, told The Guardian: 'Even though it's done with best intentions, publicising this issue has only piqued curiosity among young people.'

Before Momo there was the Blue Whale game which hit the headlines in 2016. This was reported to have similar effects: it started by encouraging players to carry out innocuous tasks, leading on to more sinister challenges of self-harm and the final challenge to commit suicide.

The last thing I want to do is draw attention to games like these. Whether these two games are hoaxes or not, they draw in children and young adults to play them. For whatever reason, there's an attraction to them these young people are perhaps not finding in their everyday existences.

The internet is here to stay and it can be a force for good and for evil. Evil is ever present, whether it is dressed up as a 'fun' game of challenges for children to play or whether it is a gang exploiting children to travel across counties selling drugs.

There is a constant battle that exists between good and evil, but as followers of Jesus we believe that the war has been won. As a child in Sunday school, we regularly sang triumphantly a chorus with the words, 'On the victory side, we're on the victory side.' We also sang, a little more hesitantly the rest of the chorus: 'No foe can daunt me, no fear can haunt me.' These words never quite rang true for me because I was raised in a dysfunctional family which was full of fear and I knew, even as a child that, evil gives birth to fear and fear both haunts and daunts.

When my social media newsfeeds are full of articles about online games like Momo, I'm even more aware of what fear might look like for our children and youth: fear of missing out, fear of being different, fear of not fitting in, fear of not being liked, of not belonging; of not being connected or accepted, fear of not being loved. What draws young people and children to internet games and gangs is that they offer something their own worlds aren't offering. They offer a place to fit in, where they are someone, a place where they feel they belong.

My three daughters have all grown up and left home, so I haven't had to face the same challenges that parents are facing today. My spirit grieves for the parents trying to navigate the treacherous waters of the internet. I never had to experience that.

However, one thing all parents have in common is that, as much as we would like to, we can't protect our children from everything. Life is going to clobber them at some time in some way, so all we can do is try to equip them to deal with some of the stuff that we can't protect them from. To help develop within them a sense of identity that helps them know who they are and that affirms they are loved and known, are someone and that they belong.

As a parent, I stumbled through raising my children. For many years I was a single parent so had to work it out on my own but because of my childhood I knew that I had to help my children become resilient. At times, this has meant I've had to stand back and choose to not get involved. I've watched my daughters fall out with their friends, letting them work it out for themselves because I wanted them to be able to handle conflict. I've stood back as they grieved the divorce of their mum and dad because I knew they needed to recognise the impact of loss and how to live with it. I've seen their dreams shattered and it's broken me as much as them. Through it all, I was there to suggest some life tools but I rarely solved their problems, because, quite honestly, I couldn't.

As a parent I wanted my daughters to discover strengths within themselves that I couldn't show them. I wanted them to be confident in who they were created to be and to know who they were created by. I wanted them to understand in the depths of their being that God had created them to be bold, strong, fearless, brave, courageous, kind, generous, loving, good, faithful, patient, gentle, joyful and to be aware of the amazing resource to draw on, through the Holy Spirit, of self-control when peer pressure hit – because it did hit and it hit hard.

I also wanted to help them recognise what is good and what is evil, to be able to tell the difference between what can cause harm and what produces good. When the Harry Potter stories hit our bookshelves, I was a bit of a pariah, because I let my children read them and watch the films. At that time, it wasn't what Christian parents did and there were numerous articles and sermons telling of the harm reading these stories could cause. But in our home, reading those stories caused my daughters to ask me questions about good and evil. It gave us opportunities to have conversations about life with faith and life at Hogwarts.

I often hear the saying 'it takes a village to raise a child'. I think we've lost the truth of those words. It's the responsibility of all of us to fight the battle against evil: parents, church, youth workers, government, teachers, police. It's our common responsibility to create environments where identity is celebrated, where no one feels alone, where everyone is someone and where everyone belongs.

And yes, in our church meetings, preach all the good things about journeying with God but also preach that he created us to be overcomers and conquerors and to be either of those things there's going to be stuff that we're going to have to overcome and conquer so also teach the skills and tools that equip us to overcome and conquer.

Momo is just another battle our young people have to fight. We can't do it for them, but we can give them the tools they need to win

Mandy Bayton is The Cinnamon Network Advisor for Wales, a speaker and a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @mandyebayton