The emotion of fear demands a target, so when some scary phenomenon is too big or abstract for us to grasp, it’s a big help psychologically for us to condense it into something that helps us explain why bad things are happening.
This isn’t new – people have been making up bogeymen since long before the Internet (hello, Dungeons & Dragons) – but rumors are now able to fly across continents in seconds, and the Internet itself is a massive ocean of abstract unknowns and possible dangers, which makes it even more fertile ground for fears. Mix natural parental concern with the Internet and our tendency to simplify our generalized fears, and you have yourself a real 21st-century moral panic – or even a whole series of them, all playing on the same themes.
How scared should you really be, though?
The size of the animal this Internet mythos was named after is roughly proportional to the complexity of this story. Here’s the basic breakdown:
Several girls in Russia committed suicide over the span of a few months in 2015. This in itself was not actually that uncommon, as Russia has a fairly high teen suicide rate, but a few patterns started to emerge. The parents of some of the girls found that they had been members of the same online groups that were discussing suicide, and also, for some reason, blue whales (we’re still not sure why).
A Russian investigative journalist started connecting the dots in 2016, and her article in the Novaya Gazeta set off a firestorm across first Russia, then the world. She claimed she had uncovered evidence of twisted games spreading across these online groups, with “curators” setting fifty tasks for participants to complete over fifty days. They could start small, like having them wake up early, listen to a certain type of music, or watch scary videos, but would progress to acts of self-harm, ending with suicide. She further claimed that at least 130 children had died because of this game.
How true was all this? That’s very much an unknown, but the game likely never existed at anything like the suggested scale. Indeed, the resulting media coverage may have been more damaging than the actual phenomenon, since this gave the Blue Whale idea international recognition. Further investigation revealed that most of the online groups discussing the game were run by 12- to 14-year-olds who were themselves waiting for the game to start. There may have been some suicides attributable to the story, but none have been linked to following the fifty-step game.
There were apparently several arrests, with several men admitting involvement in the game. However, the vast majority of stories on these arrests were run in tabloids, not reliable news sources, and the primary suspect was quite possibly pretending to be involved to get publicity for his music.
Essentially, Blue Whale was a transcontinental Internet moral panic that remains unconfirmed. Scary, yes, and quite possibly containing grains of truth, but most likely a case of a few isolated incidents being woven together into a narrative that may have inspired copycats and created the very phenomenon it claimed to be uncovering.
Coming on the heels of the Blue Whale challenge was a very definite case of fiction becoming reality: an art contest entry titled “Slenderman” caught the imaginations of online horror fiction groups and became a creepypasta staple. If you’re not familiar with creepypasta, it’s essentially a blend of fiction and meme centered on scary stories that blur the lines between reality and imagination.
The Slenderman character spawned stories, images, wikis, blogs, and even video games, and the wealth of serious-toned information that became available about him on the Internet could probably convince a casual reader that Slenderman was indeed a real urban legend, despite his origins being explicitly known. That’s what happened in 2014 when two girls in Wisconsin took one of their classmates to the woods and stabbed her repeatedly, claiming it was because of Slenderman.
You might be able to guess the pattern of the events that followed: the story spread like wildfire across the media and a moral panic ensued across most of the U.S, with social media playing a big role in the quick spread of parental concern. Probably thanks to the media coverage, copycat actions began to spring up, and a few other reports of children doing violent things under the influence of Slenderman popped up.
This is probably the most justified Internet panic since there was an igniting incident that can be directly attributed to web-based content. The idea that Slenderman could cause an otherwise mentally healthy child to do something violent, though, was simply a scare tactic that worked to get the story out. While exposure to this type of content could be an issue for someone with a condition, the dark hypnosis that people tend to fear in this type of scenario is not a concern at all.
The Momo Challenge
In some ways, Blue Whale, Slenderman, and Momo can be thought of as a sort of a trilogy, since they were all Internet-generated panics centered around children being influenced towards violence. Much like Slenderman, the disturbing image of Momo was actually created by someone – a Japanese special effects artist.
Like the Blue Whale incident, the Momo Challenge was supposed to lead to children killing themselves. And, much like both of its predecessors, the actual damage attributable to Momo is likely minimal – the panic over it likely inspired much more than any real scheme could have.
So what was/is Momo? According to popular myth, you could text a Whatsapp account called Momo, which used the birdlike, wide-mouthed monster as an avatar. You would then receive back a series of messages with an ever-escalating set of challenges. You probably know how it ends: you kill yourself. That’s not all, either: apparently, clips of Momo were also being embedded in kids programming on YouTube and circulated around the Internet, telling kids to do violent things.
The picture itself is enough to creep you out, so when you couple it with an unsettling story and bring kids into it, it’s pretty much a made-for-social-media viral hit. Even Kim Kardashian tweeted about it. Fortunately for everyone, this is probably the least-real panic of the trilogy, since there is almost no confirmed harm linked to Momo. Some have claimed that suicides have been linked, but no confirmed evidence has been found. The worst thing that might possibly be connected with Momo or Momo-themed accounts is hacking attempts aimed at trying to get people to give up personal information, but even this is a fairly vague claim.
The Game of 72
Though the biggest panics tend to involve violence, it seems like there’s always a new smaller one coming up in circulation. The Game of 72 (or 48, 24, 12, etc.) started when a girl in France disappeared for three days, then came back and claimed she had been playing a game.
Despite the story being picked up internationally and sparking fears that kids were playing a “pretend you’re missing to get social media attention” game, there were actually no other confirmed cases of any children doing anything similar at all, despite the rumor resurfacing several times and sparking a new frenzy of tabloid coverage and concerned social media shares. If anything, you’d think that all the media attention would have inspired a few attempts, but nope, nothing yet.
However, there have been confirmed incidents of teens, especially in Europe, attempting to hide in stores like IKEA after closing time, so kids will apparently disappear as a result of Internet fads every now and then.
So when should we panic?
How about when people start eating Tide Pods? That seems like a good time. Ironically, one of the funniest Internet challenges also turned out to be one of the most dangerous, since people had actually been getting poisoned from Tide Pods before the meme ever began, and once the Internet had its way with it, Tide Pod poisoning cases did indeed go up.
They just look a lot like candy, and very young and very old people were already accidentally taking bites. Possibly because nobody thought it could really be that bad – it’s just soap, right? – some people actually tried it, both on and off social media. This did not go well, as concentrated laundry chemicals are actually pretty dangerous when ingested.
Given that most Internet panics are hoaxes, or at least blown out of proportion, you’re right to be skeptical when you see a repost claiming that teenagers are doing some crazy thing. But the Internet can be a genuinely dangerous place, with things like cyberbullying, blackmail, and exploitation running rampant over some dark corners.
It’s not wrong to be careful, but it is arguably wrong to perpetuate a potentially damaging myth since you might end up helping create something that started out as imaginary. “Google before you share” is a mantra that would certainly make the Internet a more boring place, but it could also help prevent actual harm.
Image credits: Slendermdl70