Ruwandi Perera calls for cyberspace safety through increased awareness

Halloween is around the corner, folks! It is the time of year when everyone dresses up in frightening costumes so that (according to legend) you wouldn’t be able to distinguish humans from spectral beings – keeping the former safe.

But today, we have much more to be afraid of than banshees, Frankenstein’s monster or Count Dracula! We have Momo, the Slender Man (or Slenderman) and Blue Whale!

Online suicide rates have risen, children are being threatened by strangers every hour, cyberbullying is as common as classroom harassment and parents have more to fear than their kids being exposed to pornography. The grotesque manner in which these online murderers and molesters act is a hundred times scarier than a bleeding zombie or menacing werewolf.

We can attribute the beginning of recent mass online suicide attempts to the urban legend Slenderman who enticed a teenager to stab her friend 19 times in the woods.

Tall, long limbed, blank faced and downright creepy, Slenderman is said to have ancient origins before he became an urban legend. In ancient Egypt, he was known as the ‘thief of gods’ and in German folklore as Der Großmann – a living evil creature who steals children from villages.

This character ‘came back to life’ in 2009 when it was drawn for an art contest and began to appear online in two vague but sinister looking images, which caused fear and speculation. Due to its obscure nature, the image and character were then used to lure children online to hurt others in the name of Slenderman.

Less creepy but deadlier, the Blue Whale Challenge ‘washed ashore’ to unsuspecting browsers and social media platforms in 2016. It went viral almost instantly, causing fear and dread worldwide. Originating in Russia, the game was founded by a 22-year-old who claimed he was cleansing society of what he called ‘biological waste’ – an online Hitler of sorts.

The game requires players (mostly teenagers) to compete for 50 days, completing one task a day. Starting with simple tasks such as waking up at 4.30 a.m. or watching a horror movie, it moves on to more self-harming challenges such as cutting yourself before ultimately committing suicide – all of which has to be recorded on video and shared on social media.

Momo, also known as the Momo Challenge or Momo Game, is the latest cyber nightmare keeping parents up at night. A scary image of a pale doll with huge bulging eyes and large black pupils, in addition to a wide mouth that runs across her thin face and dark unruly hair, Momo is more terrifying than her previous counterparts.

Originally created as a work of art in Japan, the doll-like creature was a sculpture made by Japanese doll artist Midori Hayashi using animal remains to be displayed in an art gallery in Tokyo as an exhibit named Mother Bird.

After being posted on Instagram in 2016, and then on Reddit and YouTube in 2018, Momo began hounding kids across the US, Mexico, Argentina, France and Germany on WhatsApp, resulting in at least one teenager committing suicide.

Momo would chat with unsuspecting kids on WhatsApp, and send violent text messages and images, and make the odd phone call to threaten them to complete tasks – failing which she would reveal things about them or harm them. Like the Blue Whale Challenge, she would first ask you to fulfil minor tasks such as waking up at odd hours or overcoming a particular fear before asking kids to jump off a rooftop or commit suicide. Momo also requires everything to be documented on video.

While psychologists say children who are lured by these online killers want to connect with someone who offers them attention, it boils down to how safe kids are online. The internet cannot and should not be ignored, but it must be used safely and for good rather than evil.

Parents, teachers and guardians have a critical role to play, in ensuring that kids are monitored and controlled – and more importantly, guided to be safe online. The golden rule of not talking to strangers is more important than ever before. However, control must be practised with care as online bullies and murderers have a way of spotting rebellious or isolated victims.

Along with good parenting however, technology can also be used to fight this threat. Apart from synching devices in your home and using SafeSearch on Google, apps such as Circle by Disney help create safer cyber experiences for children.

So ‘Happy Halloween!’ – and stay safe from those who lurk maliciously behind their screens!