Every day new challenges are created putting the lives of children and young people at risk.
By: Diana Bello Aristizábal
DORAL, FL – In this time of viral contents and overload of information, it seems almost impossible to protect children and adolescents from the dangers to which they are exposed on the Internet.
The viral challenges have become a global trend. Unfortunately, marketing strategies to gain more followers boost their strength in social networks.
Both children and young people are totally attracted to these challenges that engage their attention, especially in social media, and although some of them can seem like fun, or even have a well-meant purpose, others are sinister, absurd, and even dangerous to the point of causing serious injuries and/or permanent damage, such as the cinnamon challenge, the ice bucket challenge, the condom challenge, the Tide detergent challenge, the choking game, the salt and ice challenge and the blue whale challenge, among others.
Recently, this topic was brought back during the last weeks when the media spread widely the story of a doll, with a macabre aspect, that was showing up in YouTube children’s videos with a dark message.
It was then when the mass hysteria began. Parents, caregivers, and educators from all around the world turned their eyes to social media to discuss this phenomenon called Momo Challenge, whose main character invited his viewers to hurt themselves or others.
Like all phenomena, many things have been said about Momo. Some people claim that this challenge is fake, others that it is an urban legend created by a web page, while others have been able to see it on their children’s computers or tablets. Even YouTube and Google talked about this stating that they had not seen evidence of Momo on their platforms.
Today, after the topic has cooled off a bit to make space for other viral contents, many people are wondering how to really be protected from these challenges that appear every so often and, apparently, will continue to do so, and how to address them at home.
There are many lessons that these viral challenges can teach us, and these are some of them:
First lesson: Children use screens without rules or adult supervision
According to Érika Ángulo, infant mental health therapist and parenting specialist, children under the age of five do not usually know how to differentiate fantasy from reality due to the developmental stage in which they find themselves in, which is why they sense as real everything they watch on the Internet.
“Before 18 months of age, children cannot be exposed to screens on a recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics. After this stage, they are not prepared to elaborate, assume and process the information they receive on the Internet without an adult that helps them understand what they see,” says Érika.
When minors are not close to an adult on screen time, in addition to the physical risk they are exposed to depending on the challenge, they may feel afraid for a determined amount of time depending on each child’s personality, have difficulty separating from their parents or feel insecure about their surroundings.
For this reason, according to the specialist, in the fear that Momo brought, it is a good thing that is allowing us to talk about the risks and uses of the Internet in children. “A child of 4 or 5 years old should not use the Internet alone in the same way that he or she would not be at the park without being watched at a certain distance,” she says.
Evelyn Castillo-Fundora, a licensed psychologist and founder of My School Psychologist Inc, has a similar opinion. She thinks that electronic devices should not be used as ‘nannies’ in moments when parents cannot be close to their children.
“At home, little ones should use screens in places where other family members are present. If, for example, we have to cook dinner, we can ask them to sit in a chair next to us to watch their favorite shows or involve them in the cooking process,” says the psychologist.
Being engaged with children while they watch digital content allows parents to respond promptly if anything happens. If that is the case, an appropriate way to approach them is by inquiring about how they felt with the inappropriate content they saw, and validate those feelings so they can process them correctly.
On the other hand, it is also essential to establish a plan of how many hours a day will the Internet be used, where, and in what places or with whom will not be allowed. “Establishing rules is a way to take better care of our children, and prevent them from not doing other activities necessary for their development, such as going to the park,” she says.
Second lesson: There is not enough communication or autonomy encouragement at homes.
Although children and adolescents have always been exposed to external dangers, nowadays it seems that social phenomena have a more significant influence on them. This is due, in large part, to the fact that minors have access to digital environments comfortably and frequently, but also due to a lack of communication between parents and children.
“We need to talk more with them, as well as develop their autonomy. We can do this by letting them make small decisions in each interaction we have with them and sending them the message that their voice is worthy of being heard,” says Érika Ángulo.
When this is done regularly at home, children grow up with more emotional stability, and healthy self-esteem, which leads them to make appropriate decisions in each challenge presented to them.
“Listening to them actively and avoiding having a ‘police’ kind of attitude is vital to develop autonomy that translates into equipping the child to make good decisions when parents are not around,” states Érika.
According to Evelyn Castillo, if adults talk to their children from a young age, it will be easier to protect them when they are between 11 and 13 years old, a stage in which, according to her, they usually begin to follow these types of trends, because they are still defining their identity and want to be accepted.
“If the lines of communication are kept open, it will be more likely that the child will go to his or her parents when challenges such as Momo arise,” says the specialist.
However, if the child does not do it in the face of a challenge as viral as Momo, the experts recommend, first of all, to inquire about how much the child actually knows about the social media challenge.
“Parents can ask if he or she has heard something about what is happening on the Internet, and based on the response open a constructive dialogue actively listening to the child to later offer some guidance regarding the proper use of the Internet,” says Érika Ángulo.
For Evelyn Castillo, it will always be better if the parents themselves start the conversation first instead of waiting for the kids to do so after hearing about it from their friends. “If mom is talking about it, it will probably lose interest for them,” she explains.
In that conversation, it is essential for adults to avoid judging so that the child has the confidence to speak freely. It is also crucial to ask questions to help the minor discover what could happen if he or she attempts to join the challenge.
In addition to this, Evelyn advises not to restrict social media entirely, taking into consideration that today is straightforward to be online. Rather than that, she encourages caregivers to send a friend request to their child’s social media accounts with the purpose of watching their behavior in them.
Third lesson: We spread the message about these challenges in the wrong way.
According to experts, sharing the news, we receive about the risks of these challenges through social media serves to raise awareness, warn parents about the problem and remind us how to use the Internet appropriately.
However, when doing so, it is important to not share the information only out of fear, because this helps to increase this sentiment rather than bringing awareness. “If as parents we show fear, we are passing that on to our children and fighting other adults, which only makes the problem worse,” says Evelyn Castillo.
On the other hand, according to the expert, viral contents tend to be popular among children and adolescents, and even result interesting for those who did not know anything about it.
“When as parents we watch a television show in front of our children and ask them to close their eyes during a scene, we are only making them more curious about it. It happens the same with these challenges. Children can even attempt to join them behind our back,” explains Evelyn.
For this reason, it is better to share this with children aiming at starting a dialogue, and if sharing with other parents, trying to motivate them to have a discussion at home in which children and adults together find a solution to this problem.