You’ve probably seen it. That image — a creepy, what-the-hell-is-that lady-bird figure with bulging eyes and a chilling grin. Its name: “Momo.”
Panicked parents across my newsfeeds are sharing reports that it’s popping up in seemingly innocuous children’s YouTube videos and messaging apps, instructing kids to perform tasks such as turn on stoves while their families are sleeping, stab others or even kill themselves. The Momo Challenge, it is called. But as disturbing as it all sounds, it is largely a viral hoax, a shock story akin to the Blue Whale game.
(I first heard about Momo last winter — it was not a real threat then, nor is it now. It’s just that today the story can’t be avoided.)
Parents: Let’s turn the panic away from Momo (and for the love, please stop sharing that photo), and start talking about the bigger issue — YouTube. YouTube remains a place where kids can come across strange, disturbing, even violent scenes within shows aimed at them. YouTube is an un-curated abyss of sometimes-crappy, sometimes-wonderful content where horrible things can slip into.
If you have kids, the easiest thing to do is ban YouTube — get it off your phones, your iPads, your TVs. This, I believe, is a perfectly sensible solution, especially for younger kids. There are plenty of other, safer platforms they can be spending their allotted screen time on — Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, PBS Kids, an app called Jellies, and more.
Still, there’s tons of great stuff on YouTube that you can’t find elsewhere, and we assume not every parent wants to give the whole thing up. So proceed with caution. Here are some steps you can take to help keep your kids safe.
Try YouTube Kids
YouTube Kids, YouTube’s “family-friendly app,” is not a perfect solution (there have been problems with inappropriate content slipping past the algorithms), but it does have more tools for parents to customise their child’s viewing experience. (A YouTube spokesperson tells me that regular YouTube is not for kids under 13, anyway, as stated in the terms of service.)
Last year, the app launched parent-approved content, a control that lets you handpick every video and channel available to your child.
How to set it up:
1) Open settings.
2) Go to the child’s profile.
3) Select “approved content only.” Then start picking videos and channels for your kids. In this mode, kids are not able to search for content on their own.
You also have the option to limit YouTube Kids to only play human-approved channels. The YouTube spokesperson recommends that parents flag any inappropriate videos for their review, stating that “flagged videos are manually reviewed 24/7 and any videos that don’t belong in the app are removed.”
Watch shows before your kids do
If the thought of this sounds terrible, know that you can watch videos at 2x or 3x speed—a 3o-minute show can become 10 minutes.
Only watch trusted, official channels
Don’t just Google “Peppa Pig videos” — start by going to the official Peppa Pig channel. YouTube Kids offers collections of trusted channels, such as such as Sesame Street and PBS. Common Sense Media has a good roundup of quality, family-friendly YouTube channels you may not have thought of, including Amy Poehler’s SmartGirls.
The way to know if a channel is official is to look for the verification checkmark.
Make a playlist
Making a video playlist for your kids is a great way to stop from clicking from one video to the next.
Turn off autoplay
On the YouTube webpage, toggle off the blue autoplay switch in the top right-hand corner, above the Up Next videos.
Have your kids watch shows on the family TV
We do this in our home. For the handful of YouTube shows thatI let my 6-year-old watch — DIY tutorials, Popular Mechanics for Kids, specific Japanese game shows, just about anything that The Kid Should See This posts — we play them on the big TV in the family room, no headphones allowed.
Set up Family Link
This is Google’s parental control app, which lets you set screen time limits and device locks.
Talk to your kids about what they’re watching
Even if it’s pretty easy to monitor your kids’ screen time when they’re young, you’re not going to be able to do it forever. Therefore, it’s important to keep having conversations with them about what they’re watching. Remind them that what they see shouldn’t be scary, and if they come across anything that they don’t understand, to tell a parent. Teach them to evaluate what they see—just because something is on YouTube doesn’t mean it’s true. If they’re too young to fully grasp that, it’s best to watch the shows with them or pass on YouTube until they’re a little older.
Give your guidelines to grandparents, babysitters and anyone else who’ll be with your kid
Make sure relatives and caregivers are aware of the dangers of simply handing kids their phone. If they’re not willing to take the same precautions you do, have them stick to Netflix, or whatever else you approve of.