Charities say parental guidance about scary-doll challenges may have worsened issue

A private company that provides schools with internet safety material has insisted it behaved responsibility by issuing factsheets on the Momo challenge hoax, despite concerns it may have exacerbated the panic surrounding the issue.

National Online Safety produced a factsheet entitled “What parents need to know about Momo”, which many UK schools sent home with children.

The guidance offered straightforward advice on internet safety but also quoted media reports about the Momo challenge in which a “scary doll-like figure reportedly sends graphic violent images, and asks users to partake in dangerous challenges like waking up at random hours and has even been associated with self-harm”.

Children’s charities have said well-intentioned warnings from schools about a seemingly non-existent threat may have inadvertently caused young people to be genuinely scared by what was previously a hoax. Some copycat videos have started to emerge, with YouTube removing adverts from any videos mentioning the topic.

National Online Safety is a private company based in Scunthorpe that sells training services to schools and parents on how to be safe online.

Schools are increasingly buying such resources, often due to a lack of in-house knowledge, raising questions about who is providing the guidance and why it is being left to the private sector.

Teachers have said the regulator, Ofsted, will penalise schools who fail to teach children about online risks but that there is no central government guidance on which internet threats they should take seriously.

“We’re fighting a losing battle on safeguarding because we can’t keep up with the technological changes,” said one assistant headteacher at a south London primary. He said his school had decided against warning parents about the Momo challenge and this may have played a role in ensuring there was no outbreak of the panic among its pupils.

Many of the claims in the factsheet were sourced to reports on the BBC and newspaper websites, including articles which have since been retracted for including false information.

A spokesperson for the company said the factsheet was issued in good faith: “We started to receive calls [about Momo] from concerned schools across the country and we heard individual accounts of safeguarding issues directly related to this problem.

“We noticed a lack of information for parents and we had no choice but to respond. We did so by producing a guide for parents and carers which is balanced. If that has enabled conversations between parents and children about online safety and led to more monitoring of children’s online activities then that is a good thing.”

Julie McCulloch, the director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said it was understandable that teachers turned to outside providers: “One of the benefits of the digital age is that schools are readily able to access a wide range of sources to support lessons and provide information. It saves time and resources, and allows them to utilise external expertise and advice.”

“The downside is that in a fast-moving environment of rolling news and social media, information which is produced and utilised in good faith may not turn out to be as reliable as it first seemed. The Momo hoax reminds us all to be sceptical about a phenomenon which suddenly goes viral.”