A 12-year-old kid in Dehradun has luckily enough, escaped the final step of the Blue Whale challenge after his teachers figured out he was playing the lethal online game. His parents completely missed the signs of his odd behaviour and now the entire family is in counselling. For the uninitiated, this online game involves progressively destructive dares for 50 days before the grim, winning one: suicide.
We may wonder all we like about the creator of this game, probably a 20-year-old sadistic freak who is titillated by encouraging suicide among children thousands of miles away. However, the world is full of crazies and thanks to the internet, it’s shockingly easy for them to infiltrate our homes and our inner lives.
The greatest challenge to parenting today, everywhere in the world, is the smartphone. It’s incredibly hard to establish boundaries and the strictest, most involved and greatest parents (if there are any), are losing the cellphone battle with their teenagers. Oh, for the old days when we parents only worried about sexting, pornography and virtual bullying.
Those issues seem so quaintly trivial compared to the bizarre world of online communities, some dangerously fetishized, seeking entertainment in gruesome ways. What is the solution? Is it the good old-fashioned way of rejecting a phone completely, something I hear people talk of with great determination when their kids are nine years old. But try reasoning with a rebellious teenager about moderate phone use. He will turn around and tell you you’re a fine one to talk, after posting 20 tweets a day.
It’s worth considering that as adults we find social media so insidiously addictive. As I write this, I am distracted by the handle @beautifuldestinations on Instagram that has posted a breathtaking image of the Amalfi coast. Half my day goes in guiltily acknowledging that I’m wasting my life reading pointless jokes on WhatsApp. Imagine how much more difficult it is to self regulate as an adolescent. Teenagers may reach adult size but they don’t have the maturity to manage their impulses.
Then there is the stunning reality that in the 10 to 20 age bracket, Facebook is completely outdated. They’re all on Snapchat and Vines, Minecraft and Messenger, merrily socialising (mostly harmlessly) at all hours of the day. I have friends who think nothing of sneaking into their kids’ phones and who also desperately chase their kids around on all these mind-boggling social media websites, citing safety reasons. But I find if I have to do that, I might as well give up all pretense of having a life, other than that of a parent. And you can try all you like with those tiresome rules — no phone after dinner, no phone till homework is done, threats of confiscation — but implementing anything long term is an entirely different story.
In my experience, none of this works. Total control is an illusion and if a kid doesn’t want you to know which sites he’s visiting, you never will. There is no harm, however, in putting the fear of god in them. That includes telling them every ghastly detail of what can happen on the Internet, the Blue Whale Challenge being just one of thousands of sites that can provoke suicide among the vulnerable. They should know there are stalkers, traffickers, bullies, people who coerce and radicalise online, and steal your bank account details.
Somewhere it’ll sink in, their antennae for danger will go up, driving home the fact that things can spiral out of control in digital environments. Even, for example, how careful you have to be about what you post. This year, Harvard University rejected two students after accepting them, following a social media post they felt was racist.
Every generation has its challenges. We grew up in pre-liberalised India with fewer economic opportunities or access to information, a simpler and slower time. This generation has to figure out how to disengage and not let the wired world take away from the more meaningful experiences of life.