A quick Google search for news related to the phrase ‘Blue Whale Challenge’ returns new results every time. Either a new case has been reported or someone is calling for the game to be banned or for the need for more awareness or some safety tips. But all you can see are the words ‘blue whale challenge’ and ‘suicide’ staring right at you. Scary, isn’t it?
The news convinces you that you cannot understand the Blue Whale Challenge, that it is beyond your control. You can try saving your kids by keeping their online activities under constant surveillance. But that’s just wishful thinking.
To sum up the media reporting, here’s the clear message – fear the blue whale. And they have even managed to convince the government that it is one of the most pressing issues of our time.
The ‘Blue Whale Challenge‘ is an internet game that was first seen in an online group on the Russian social media network called VKontakte (VK). It is not a ‘video game’ in the common sense of the word. Rather it seems to be a text-based game with elements of extreme role play. This means that it can be played over any communication network. For example, the administrator emails/texts/WhatsApps a particular task (from cutting yourself to listening to a song) to the user. The user completes the task and sends the report or evidence back to the administrator. The instructions are followed over the course of 50 days.
Within this Blue Whale VK group, the administrators would first allegedly ask the interested user to hand over their personal information in order to start the game. Then they would supposedly assign a series of increasingly dangerous and disturbing acts culminating in a final act which asks the user to commit suicide on the 50th day. It is alleged that the personal information handed over to the administrator is used by them to exercise control over the user, preventing them from leaving the game.
There have aren’t been any confirmed suicides as a result of the Blue Whale Challenge. However, there have been links drawn to it in several cases.
VK has been deleting accounts and groups that have “content that justifies suicide”.
Considering that deleting a page has never solved a problem on the internet, one could speculate that the suicide groups may have found a more secure and untraceable part of the internet to operate out of.
There are a lot of unverified claims, photo-shaped imagery, unreliable translations and internet creepypasta (an inventive genre of horror legends & stories that uses the medium of the internet) associated with the Blue Whale Challenge because it’s so untraceable.
Misrepresentation of a May 2016 story from the Russian site Novaya Gazeta started this entire frenzy around the game. The article reported that from November 2015 to April 2016 dozens of children had committed suicide and almost all of them belonged to the same online game community on VK.com. However, an investigation by Radio Free Europe found that no suicides had been definitively linked to these online communities. The Novaya Gazeta report was highly criticised for concluding that a social media game was promoting teenagers to take their life.
Some cases in India have also been linked to the Blue Whale Challenge but none of them have been verified so far. The only credible platforms that seem to un-ironically carry reports on the Blue Whale Challenge are unfortunately Indian news portals. And this, in turn, is ending up giving credibility to the rumours and legends itself.
According to this report from the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention, suicide contagion or “Copycat Suicide” occurs when one or more suicides are reported in a way that contributes to another suicide.
It also says that:
Research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals.
The magnitude of the increase is related to the amount, duration and prominence of coverage.
Risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/ graphic headlines or images, and repeated/extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death.
Suicide is a public health issue. Media and online coverage of suicide should be informed by using best practices. Some suicide deaths may be newsworthy. However, the way media cover suicide can influence behaviour negatively by contributing to contagion or positively by encouraging help-seeking.
In reporting the Blue Whale Challenge, the Indian media has clearly missed the mark at both avoiding misinformation and promoting hope. Rather the approach has been to pile on allusions until the reader felt overwhelmed and lost a sense of control all the while irresponsibly risking the possibility of instigating copycat behaviour among impressionable teens, whose mental health may be at risk. If there is anything to fear on this scenario, it’s the media reportage.
As the media is piling on the reports, all the state governments are reacting. The promptness of the reaction is reassuring, but the measures taken leave a lot to be desired. Take this one – the Gujarat government has announced a cash reward of ₹ 1 lakh to those providing information about the “administrators and curators” of the Blue Whale Challenge. Meanwhile, other state governments have either issued advisories or directives regarding it. And it’s not just the government. The education department in Lucknow has banned the use of smart phones by children in school in a bid to keep them away from the game.
The government has ordered a few social media platforms including Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Microsoft and Yahoo to take down Blue Whale related content. This well-meaning order reveals a misunderstanding of the phenomenon.
Anything that is promoting or inciting suicide will be taken off most of these platforms as per their safety policies, so the order does not really add anything new to the existing systems. In the case of an encrypted Over The Top (OTT) messaging app like WhatsApp, content takedown by a third party is not something that can be done.
Also, the order limits the internet to just five platforms. This makes these platforms seem quasi-safe zones while the activity that is being tracked down, shifts elsewhere.
Also as mentioned earlier, the Blue Whale Challenge as it is being described, is a text based game that can be played over SMS in a very basic phone. The order makes no attempts to address even the alleged nature of the issue.
In failing to address suicide as a mental health issue, the government and the media have not come through for Indian children. It could have engaged in a much-needed conversation on teenage suicide.
Now thanks to the media, your child probably knows about the Blue Whale Challenge. A conversation around online safety and mental health would be good and reinforce the fact that if anything were to ever go wrong in any online or offline space, you are there for them, that you will not judge them and that they can always talk to you.
What parents need to remember is to not be afraid. You are in control and you will be able to protect your children.