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'Momo challenge' nearly deadly for family, mom says

CBS News logo CBS News 2/28/2019 CBSNews

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Police have issued warnings to parents on social media after a popular WhatsApp challenge has resurfaced, sometimes infiltrating children's YouTube videos. A northern California mother says her daughter has fallen victim to the "Momo challenge" -- and created a nearly catastrophic situation in their home.

Children who participate in the challenge contact a creepy stranger – "Momo" – who communicates primarily through the Facebook-owned messaging app WhatsApp. Momo encourages a participant to complete various tasks if they want to avoid being "cursed." Some of the tasks include self harm. Ultimately, the game ends with Momo telling the participant to take their own life and record it for social media.

Pearl Woods told CBS Sacramento that her 12-year-old daughter with autism was encouraged to do dangerous things by the character. "Just another minute, she could've blown up my apartment, she could've hurt herself, other people, beyond scary," Woods said.

Woods, who lives in Folsom, is careful about what videos her daughter, Zoey, can watch online and has multiple parental settings. "She's on the spectrum and a lot of children that are, are very impressionable," she said.

A few weeks ago, Zoey began displaying some unusual behavior. "Where is 'suicide' coming from? Why would she ask me about a knife into an outlet?" Woods said.

Last weekend Zoey turned the kitchen gas stove on without letting it light, which created a potentially explosive situation.

"She kept telling me about Momo and I just didn't understand, I see now," Woods said.

She discovered alarming short clips popping up in the videos Zoey was watching. "She pauses the screen as soon as I walked in and I saw this creepy masked doll looking," Woods said.

Her daughter told her, "It was Momo making bad videos. It was bad."

"That's really an explosive fire danger," said Captain Chris Vestal with Sac Metro Fire. "We really encourage parents to pay attention to what their children are doing on the internet, ask them what they're doing."

Across the country, kids are reporting seeing Momo videos with the strange cartoon-like character telling kids to do dangerous things.

CBS Los Angeles reports pediatrician and mom Dr. Free Hess was disturbed by what she found: Violent content, sexual innuendos and clips spliced into kids videos that include a man giving tips on suicide.

"We have no idea what seeing this content does to children, their brains are are not fully developed so they're not able to think through complex situations such as the things that they are seeing," Dr. Hess said.

The original image of "Momo" is actually a sculpture called "Mother Bird" by Japanese artist Keisuke Aisawa, which was on display in 2016 at the Vanilla Gallery in Tokyo. There is no evidence that Aisawa's company Link Factory was involved in the creation or execution of the Momo challenge. Link Factory did not immediately respond to CBS News' request for comment. 

Like most memes, the Momo challenge seemingly disappeared soon after it went viral. But this week, parents across the U.K. are finding the game on WhatsApp as well as hidden within animated videos for children across social media. "WhatsApp cares deeply about the safety of our users," a WhatsApp spokesperson told CBS News on Tuesday. "It's easy to block any phone number and we encourage users to report problematic messages to us so we can take action."

A YouTube spokesperson told CBS News on Tuesday: "Our Community Guidelines prohibit harmful and dangerous challenges, including promoting the Momo challenge, and we remove this content quickly when flagged to us."

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