So what’s the deal with the shadowy Blue Whale “suicide challenge” that can apparently brainwash a young ‘gamer’ into killing themselves? It is said that this “game” can reach a young teenager on social media sites if they endorse certain hashtags and get involved in some groups. When the player signs up for the game, she or he is assigned an administrator who provides them with a daily task to complete for 50 days, of which they must send photographic proof of completion. These tasks are initially simple enough, such as watching a horror movie or waking up at odd times but eventually they are told to inflict harm upon themselves. But on the 50th and final day, they are asked to kill themselves. Those who get cold feet are threatened that the administrator possesses all their information and would bring harm to them or their loved ones. The claim is that “Blue Whale” game has been responsible for more than 130 suicides in Russia.
Rumors have been doing global rounds about an application-based shadowy suicide challenge game called “Blue Whale” that hacks into users’ phone and cannot be deleted. But this seems to be false. App stores like Google, Apple or Windows would not, and do not permit such a shady entities on their platforms. Even a torrent search of “Blue Whale game” won’t yield this particular entity. Instead there are other harmless apps with similar names, including one for looking at Blue Whales through a VR headset, that have been collateral damage as people excitedly hunting for the infamous Blue Whale suicide game are downrating anything named like it.
The narratives are like comic book scares. But fear and panic, and the desire to believe everything you read, will not help. But let us look at it more closely. The phenomenon and the stories are of Russian origin — a country with the second highest teen suicide rates in the world (after New Zealand).
The Russian Twist
A May 16, 2016 investigative story run in the independent Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, first claimed the existence of “death groups” on Russia’s most popular social media network, VKontakte (also known as VK), that were ensnaring and inciting young teens into committing suicide. The story was based on the research of a mother, whose 12-year-old daughter had committed suicide, into the online activity of her dead child and who wanted to share the information to prevent further tragedies. According to this report, there were about 130 reported adolescent suicides in Russia between November 2015 and April 2016 and a majority of these children who took their life were part of the same social media groups on the internet — death groups.
According to many reports in this particular case, including one by Ekaterina Sinelschikova in Russian Beyond the Headlines, “the names of these [death] groups may appear harmless at first glance – “Silent House”, “Sea of Whales” or the mysterious “#f57,” but they contain pompous, eloquent quotes about the meaninglessness of life and popular songs on the same theme.” According to Novaya Gazeta, there are no fewer than 1,500 VKontakte communities that can be seen to encourage children to commit suicide in one way or another.
Self-harm online groups
Since the origin of the internet, alongside its largely positive effects and proliferation of various support networks, niche groups promoting unhealthy and harmful behavior have also flourished, such as those encouraging cutting or anorexic and bulimic behavior or promoting self-harm and suicidal feelings among teenagers. These work much like getting into offline bad company.
Only a small percentage of teens facing depression, especially if isolated from supportive friends and family, are known to venture into these groups but the effect of multiple visits can be aggravating to their behavior, writes Child Psychologist Michele Ybarra, who is working in the field of internet victimisation and cyberbullying, on Psychology Today.
VKontakte, which can boast of being the second largest social network in the world and is far more popular than Facebook in Russia, has a predominantly young demographic with a vast majority of its users being under 30. However, it is not known to be very safe for its impressionable adolescent users. Wikipedia page of VKontakte quotes a study done by Kaspersky Lab, a Russian multi-national specialising in cybersecurity products, which states that the VKontakte grants young users easy access to pornographic images, video and other such materials shared within certain groups and communities on the platform.
Is Blue Whale the cause of suicides?
The Novaya Gazeta story implied that the shared involvement in the group pointed to its causality in the suicides. This alone, however, does not guarantee a causality to these groups, since teenagers with pre-existing suicidal thoughts are likely to be attracted to similar online clusters, in search of like-minded people. According to an investigation done by Radio Free Europe, there is no official mention of death groups or the Blue Whale game in the police investigations of the quoted Russian teen suicides yet. The point is that in the suicides said to be caused by the Blue Whale game, the onus is still in the suspicion/theory stage, and even then, the game can hardly be held directly responsible.
According to Sinelschikova, there is a law in Russia to shut down websites promoting suicides, but the trouble is that new ones surface as soon as old ones are shut down. There are talks in the parliament of expanding the criminality. “While social networks and the parliament in Russia have moved to eliminate so-called “groups of death,” they may well be fighting an urban legend”, writes Leonid Bershidsky for the Bloomberg who feels the focus of the authorities might be amiss. “The obvious threat is well established: the tragically high suicide rates in countries struggling after the fall of the Soviet Union are a result of much broader societal ills”, he writes. According to research, family discord and distress is a leading cause for suicides among adolescents in Russia. Schools too usually does not provide respite as the institutions tend to be underfunded, understaffed and have been widely criticized for neglecting the issue of bullying among children. Alcohol abuse and the frustration of living in a corrupt system where lack of ties to the economically and politically powerful still dim one’s chances of growth are other known factors. In other words, it is quite possible that the suicides suspected to be connected with the Blue Whale game may be of teenagers already running a high risk of ending their lives. The game may have acted as the tipping point in time.
The vulnerability of emotionally-or-socially marginalised adolescents
Most teenagers (and adults) of sound mind with a supportive network at home and at school, are unlikely to stumble upon this “game” or be brainwashed by it. This is not to say that the Blue Whale game does not exist and that it may not have the potential to romanticize and promote more suicides among youngsters. But “Blue Whale challenge” of unchecked rumors may simply be a catchphrase getting all the buzz when in fact suicide-promoting online groups are behind-the-cover menace. The problem they thrive on is one of vulnerability to self harming behavior and suicidal thoughts among emotionally-or-socially marginalised adolescents — which sadly is a transborder phenomenon. A Russian backdrop is unnecessary for their propagation, which is evident as parents and educators in other countries are also concerned about the world of social media and online videos increasingly consuming the minds of youngsters. A school in Singapore recently undertook awareness and debriefing talk sessions around the issues addressed the popular Netflix series 13 Reasons Why with its students, as the show elaborately dramatises a teenager’s suicide.
The hysteria surrounding the Blue Whale “suicide game” needs to be re-focused on issues of adolescent depression that invite it. Addressing the root causes of vulnerability of young adolescents and talking to them about such harmful groups and what they contain is perhaps a better defense against the Blue Whale game and co, rather than getting caught a panic of half-baked sensational reports. Teenagers and students need to know how to support each other and whom to unconditionally turn for help when concerned.