You might have breathed a sigh of relief that Huggy Wuggy seems to have taken a back seat, but it appears that a new 'demonic' character is doing the rounds, already.
In a note dated 16 May 2022, going around on WhatsApp this week, a Namibian secondary school warns parents of a "terrible web page" named 'Chucky's Cheese Restaurant', calling it 'demonic'. The letter warns that children who engage with the page are encouraged to "strangle a friend, kill a teacher, burn their house" and are threatened if they don't comply.
At the time of publication of this article, the school in question had not yet confirmed if the letter was genuine.
A quick Google search turns up a related article from 2020, in The Namibian. In July 2020, Windhoek Gymnasium's pre-primary school principal, Thea Loubser, told the news site they noticed that some of the children were "acting strange and out of character", and upon investigation, they discovered that these children had been exposed to a Chucky video.
Another Google search and what seems to be the video in question pops up, captioned 'Chucky the killer doll is proud to present his new chain of deadly arcade-pizzerias!'. The video, published in 2018, shows children laughing as adults are abused in various ways by a deformed Chucky doll. A related interactive 'webpage' does not appear in Google search.
You can watch the video below and judge how disturbing (or demonic) it may be, for yourself.
'Some dolls kill people'
While this recent letter may just be some new fear-mongering among parents, or based on a resurgence in interest among children, there does seem to be a basis for the original letter, as parents have heard their children are playing 'Chucky tag' at local schools, among other games.
While not made for children, many videos like this exist and are shared among adults and older kids, and they trickle down to children.
I know this to be true, because my own screen-free daughter was exposed, via a friend's phone, to Chucky earlier this year. I found out about the sneaky video watching when she wouldn't go to bed one night, and then she asked me if I knew that 'some dolls kill people'.
The result was nightmares and increased anxiety, and she wouldn't go to sleep alone for weeks. I explained in great detail all about film-making and how some people like to watch scary things, and that calmed her, eventually.
But I was lucky.
Parents too often share with me their experiences of how their children have responded to scary, inappropriate content. Nightmares, anxiety, violent behaviour, and even self-harm are common in children disturbed by videos and media like the video above, and also by games and series.
The short term impact is clear, but what about the longer-term effect that being exposed to and interacting with horror genre videos and insidious 'evil' characters online has on children?
I spoke to Jane*, a Cape Town-based child psychologist and edu-care teacher who asked to remain anonymous to protect her patients, and she set my hair on end with her experiences with her young patients.
Working mostly with children aged between one and five years old, she says that most of her clientele come straight from the schools where she works.
First off, she shares with me that one of the key things that she noticed regarding the Poppy Playtime game that did the rounds earlier this year, was that nine out of 10 times, it was an older sibling who made the younger child watch.
"I can tell you it wasn't the child going out and looking for these videos. It was an older sibling making the child watch these videos," she says.
So while we know that kids can be exposed to inappropriate content through siblings and friends, what is the danger, really? As a child psychologist, Jane stresses that these stories are effecting children differently.
She describes how children are impacted: some shake it off and understand it's just a story, and others become involved in the story and can't separate reality from what they see on the screen.
"They think that these actions are expected from them, some even feel the fear of punishment if the actions aren't carried out," she reveals.
What about parents who brush it off, I ask, as I hear comments from parent's sharing that their kids are fine, they'll get over it, they'll find out about this stuff soon enough.
Jane reveals: "Comments like this kill me on the inside, because two weeks ago I sent a six-year-old to a permanent residence for trying to hurt their family over the Poppy Playtime drama that was going around."
"Basically, Poppy Playtime encouraged everything from strangulation to slicing open your mother's throat while she's sleeping," Janes describes, adding "It's a big horrible book to open, and I've seen kids being taken away, because they're trying to kill their parents, or kill their sister."
She shares, horrified, that one of her seven-year-old patients tried to smother their newborn sibling, because Poppy Playtime said "that's how we love".
She stresses that this is something that needs to be addressed.
"Children with undiagnosed mental challenges are affected the most, and we as the adults don't always realise that because we can be oblivious to the problem, and we shake it off before questioning it further," she reveals.
"This one little child, who I would like to keep anonymous, has been sent away now for a full lockdown evaluation, because they got so involved in Poppy Playtime and this Huggy Wuggy game, that this little person was trying to kill their parents while they were sleeping," Jane shares.
She explains that the child felt such pressure from not completing this horrible act, that they would hurt themselves - for example using screwdrivers to cut themselves with - adding "It was horrible".
'They wake up screaming'
Jane says this can happen when parents don't acknowledge that their children are different. She says that children with challenges, or different abilities, are the ones who suffer the most because they feel a kind of societal peer pressure to do what's been told of them.
She says she understands that the general public doesn't understand the severity of the impact these videos and games have on children, as she herself had no idea until she put herself in the situation.
"The children were keeping it to themselves. I put myself in the situation because of one beautiful little soul I cherish and love with all my heart in my class. This little person is the most amazing with the purest intentions, but [they] would be doing their work and would pass out at the table, and I had to disrupt the class, pull them out, sit with them for almost an hour and a half to try and figure out what is wrong, what's happening. And that was actually when I found out about Poppy Playtime."
She says she started asking the children in her classes what they were doing at home. She admits "I began interrogating them. And now I'm so thankful that I did."
Jane adds that the amount of damage that has been done already is terrible. "I know of a five and a half-year-old who is on heavy medication, just because of their insomnia. They can't sleep at night because they wake up screaming, crying, and hyperventilating because of the nightmares from all these horrific shows."
She says that when you put yourself in the position to start asking children questions, and getting that information out, it will open your eyes. "It all sounds bogus until you are actually sending kids to special psychological hospitals for long term treatment because they involved themselves in these stories and think that this is what is wanted from them," she warns.
Where to find help
So what if you find your child has watched or played something inappropriate?
Jane says, through observing and seeing how parents react, that in her experience a lot of parents are so quick to jump at shouting at and disciplining the kid.
"They ask: "What are you doing? Why are you watching that?" and demand "Don't do this. Don't do that" instead of taking the child and talking to them as if they're still a person."
She suggest parents rather approach with questions phrased kindly, like "Hey sweetheart, you know that what you're watching is not okay. We don't do that. That's not normal. That's not love. That's not affection. That's not how we show each other love."
Unfortunately, very few parents are willing to sit with their kids and ask "Why are you doing that? That's not something we usually do. So why do you want to do that?" to find out what motivated the behaviour.
If your child is displaying concerning behaviour, changes in routine or sleeplessness, speak to your doctor or pediatrician. You can also reach out to one of the organisations listed here:
The South African Depression and Anxiety Group: 0800 12 13 14
Akeso Behavioural Healthcare Group: 0861 4357 87
Recovery Direct: 079 235 7415
TherapyRoute: 0837420114 (WhatsApp)
*Name changed to protect patient identity
Share your stories and questions with us via email at email@example.com. Anonymous contributions are welcome.
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