Leona O'Neill

Leona O'Neill has been a journalist in Northern Ireland for over 20 years working with, among others, the Belfast Telegraph, Sunday Life, Daily Mirror and the Irish News. She is also a news reporter on Q Radio, a weekly columnist with the Irish News and a commentator for the BBC. She is a mother of four children - two of them teenagers - and as such is also a full-time professional worrier.

When I was a little girl I was absolutely petrified of banshees. I remember this totally irrational fear was sparked when I read a Celtic myths and legends book my Dad had that detailed these terrifying, long haired, scary faced hags who would stand screaming loudly in your garden to herald the death of a female relative. Once I had seen the picture of this horrible creature, she haunted my dreams for months afterwards.

I was so terrified of this creature I spoke to my friends about her, and terrified them. People would go home and ask their parents about banshees and every lunchtime in the playground we would congregate and discuss what new knowledge we had garnered about this clear and present danger to our young lives.

She sneaks into your bedroom at night and steals your hairbrush, said one friend with confidence. We all agreed that going forward, hair brushes are to be left downstairs. If you look her straight in the eye, your heart stops, said another. It happened to her granny. After the screaming and crying stopped, we all agreed that if we were ever to come across this terrifying hag creeping around our homes in the dead of night, there was to be no direct eye contact.

She removes the eyes of babies, she can climb trees, she likes to scrape her nails down your bedroom window in a menacing fashion, she can pick locks, she’s going to kill your Mammy. This mass hysteria sparked from one photo in a book, grew legs, grew to be a monster and before long was the only thing that consumed our young minds. I’m positive that some of my classmates – now in their 40s – still wake in the night screaming about it.

I was reminded of these trying times when Momo stories began circulating last week. Stories appeared in the paper, police issued warnings, parents were asked to talk to their kids about this terrifying looking bird like creature, with bulging eyes, greasy hair and a weird smile. Schools stuck letters with safety advice in children’s school bags.

The original line was that this character, Momo, would hack into social media platforms such as WhatsApp and messenger, set children dangerous challenges such as cutting and harming themselves and warn them if they didn’t carry out these tasks they would be cursed, their parents would die, or really bad things would happen to their family.

Because the police released this information, everyone took it as a true, credible, imminent threat to the safety of our children and we all freaked out. We showed our kids the picture of Momo and asked them if they ever saw her online, and they freaked out. It was all that was talked about in playgrounds across the land and fear was at fever pitch.

Charities however pitched in and said that there were absolutely no reports of anyone being hacked or harming themselves as a result of the app. Many called the Momo scare a hoax.

In the wake of the scare, cyber experts went in and checked out the Momo app, which they have stated is indeed creepy. The app has a chatroom function which is where those with ill intent are trying to contact children by prompting them to give their mobile phone number, converse via WhatsApp and Messenger.

This is how sickos are contacting children. However there has been little evidence so far of children playing online being actually hacked and told to do themselves harm.

What should be worrying for all of us is that many of our children’s apps have chat room functions and these areas of our digital world are, every day, being manipulated by those who mean our children harm. Momo is not the only one. Everyday apps, which we think would be a safe place for our children, could have dangers lurking.

Online Safety

A lot of us parents do not properly monitor our children’s online activities, we do not set restrictions and we think that our kids are safe sitting beside us on the sofa or in their bedrooms on their devices, when they could be interacting with nasty people.

If the rather disturbing Momo – whether it was a hoax or not – has taught us anything it has harshly and brightly shone a light on the hard truth that us parents need to learn – we need to properly monitor what our kids are doing online.

Your child needs to be aware that you can lift their device and check apps, chats, photos at any time. They need to ask before they add friends online. And you need to use child-friendly apps such as ‘YouTube Kids’ and Kiddle instead of their adult counterparts YouTube and Google.

Sickos online tell children that if they tell their parents about what is happening they will be punished. Make sure your children know they can talk to you about anything, regardless of how bad it may seem, and that you will be there to support them.

Let’s banish banshees and Momo – and the fears surrounding them – to the bin.