Last school year, there was an online explosion of the concept of a creature called “Momo,” which was accompanied by an awkward and creepy photo of artwork that had been originally created by a Japanese artist. The links, shared by practically everyone with children, warned of an alarming trend where someone was reaching out to children online and threatening them as “Momo” and convincing them to commit suicide. The problem with this is that it was untrue and baseless.
Personally, I didn’t even talk with my kids about Momo or show them the photo. I simply reiterated the rules we already have regarding online behavior like “don’t communicate with strangers” and “if someone tells you to do something bad you must immediately tell a parent or teacher.” Still, my daughter, who was in second grade, came home about a week after I had seen the first posts, and she’d been indoctrinated with unfounded terror because suddenly so many parents and grown ups had bought into the concept of Momo that they had discussed it at school. Kids were talking about Momo on the bus. My independent daughter had stopped sleeping in her own bed overnight because she was fearful of some completely fabricated story that was posted online with an unrelated photo. Eventually, after some time and many conversations, my daughter moved on from Momo.
But now, we have EEE. Schools across southwest Michigan went into mosquito control overdrive last week in response to a press release from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services warning about guarding against mosquito bites to prevent the spread of the Eastern equine encephalitis virus. Some districts changed game times and practice schedules while most districts obtained parental permission to apply bug spray at school. It’s wonderful that districts care about their students and took proactive measures to protect them. It’s fantastic that my kids attend a school district that took immediate action and communicated directly with me about what the plan was and what I could do to help.
My concern here is the way these situations are presented to kids. Sometimes as adults we become so hypervigilant about protecting our kids that we can actually do more harm than good. If a child is terrified to leave the house because of a mosquito, they’re certainly not going to be able to focus on learning. If a student is unable to sleep at night because they are only thinking of Momo (or the next Momo – there’s always something coming along to replace the prior nonsense), they’re certainly not going to be capable of functioning in line at the grocery store the next day.
I’m extremely open with my own kids and often talk with them frankly about what they see on the news, but the whole entire goal of those conversations is to ensure that they feel safe and understand the difference between “extreme immediate danger” and taking necessary precautions “just in case” something bad comes along. I compare this to days we might need the umbrella and days we don’t even bother taking it. It’s always good to check the weather forecast, but it is completely unnecessary to run around like Chicken Little alarming second graders that they sky is falling – especially when the sky is definitely not falling.
We don’t need elementary aged children worried about a brain virus. We need elementary aged children to wear bug spray when they go outside until it’s colder. These are two completely different presentations of the situation. Imagine how these situations impact students that are already dealing with anxiety.
I definitely don’t want to imply that I think any adults in my kids’ lives have intentionally caused undue fear. Fire alarms and lockdown drills have also impacted my sleep at night because a little one found it hard to deal with. That doesn’t mean we should stop having those drills.
Often times, during adult conversations, it’s easy to forget that little ears are listening and paying attention and forming their own understanding of what we say. Without the proper guidance, those little scary thoughts run off and become big scary thoughts. I’m hoping we can encourage each other to stop feeding the fear machine and instead present realistic information and logical reactions to the information rather than pretending we’re in a movie where Jeff Goldblum predicts our death and then a dinosaur eats us while a tsunami washes away our livelihoods and everyone ignores scientists.
In case of emergency, (like Momo or EEE) don’t panic. Listen to the scientists, people. And then help your kids understand that if they do what the scientists say, everything will likely be just fine.
Anna Layer lives in Hartford with her three children. She can be reached at email@example.com.