There’s a sudden burst of news about an online social media game called ‘Blue Whale’ that manipulates players - usually children - into completing a morbid set of tasks, culminating in suicide. You’ve probably received a WhatsApp forward cautioning parents or seen an article in the papers.
The game that supposedly originated in Russia, has raised an outcry across countries from Croatia, Latvia, Ukraine, to UK and Dubai, to Brazil, Argentina and the US. In some cases, school authorities have sent a letter to parents warning them about the game. In the UK, the police have taken to twitter to express shock and to warn parents. However, there is also speculation that the game is nothing but an elaborate hoax. What is the truth?
ChildSafeMedia did some research and here’s what we think parents need to know about it.
First, ‘Blue Whale’ is not a single game in the traditional video game sense. It is one of the many names of fringe communities on social media sites targeting tweens and teens. Entry into these sites must be approved by the administrator who usually goes by an online handle that isn’t his/ her real identity.
Second, the game doesn't have to be called Blue Whale. These communities first appeared on VKontakte (a popular Russian social media site like FaceBook). Some of these communities go by names like ’Silent House,’ ‘Sea of Whales’ and ‘f57’ for example - have content including images and music that are intended to tune into depressed tweens and teens.
Third, it seems to be a case of chicken and egg. When the administrators of these groups were contacted, they claimed they were only trying to build audience by riding on the wave of the internet sensation caused by a teen suicide (In November 2015, a Russian girl named Rina Palenkova laid herself down on a railway track and committed suicide) and subsequent interest among tweens in suicide and related topics.
The next month, another 12-year old Russian girl jumped to her death from a high rise. She had subscribed to a few social media groups that are now being nicknamed “death groups.” Suspicious, her grieving mother Irina took it upon herself to investigate, subscribing to several of these groups herself. What she found, shook up the system. Among others things, Irina found elaborate maps with cities marked in Red, from where subsequently many child suicides were reported, pointing to an organized set-up. She shared her findings with the Russian paper Novaya Gazeta.
Fourth, the journalist Galina Mursaliyeva is apparently known to use clickbait articles and therefore the claims of 130+ suicides linked to Blue Whale alone came into question. The tabloid nature of some of the early publications that reported Blue Whale also reduced credibility of the claims. The journalist published a book back in 2015 titled "Suicidal Behavior Of Children."
Fifth, Russia has one of the largest suicide rates for children in the world, only behind New Zealand. Therefore, the logical conclusion was that Blue Whale is at best only an indicator of the problem and not the cause. The suicides are attributed to more fundamental causes of broken and dysfunctional families.
However, the admins of some of these so-called death groups have been arrested, most notably Filippe Budeikin. He has apparently confessed to abetting the suicides of a few teenagers saying he only wanted to rid the earth of scum.
Around the world, educators and police - and even governments - have sent out messages of caution. In India too, news media have started reporting on the game and messages of caution have floated from schools and some police quarters.
What can parents do?
1. Don’t panic. Do not turn ballistic overnight. You do not want to create a curious cat eager to get more information. It is important how we talk about tweens and teens in social media. “Social norming” theories posit that how teenagers perceive their peers can actually have an impact on how they themselves act. Basically, you don't want a self-fulfilling prophecy.
2. Engage constantly, consistently. This isn't a one-time check. Be involved in what your children do online. Have a clue. It isn't fashionable to say my kid is a champ when it comes to technology but I don't know anything.
3. Keep communication lines open - with their close friends. The easier source of information - both reassurance and early warning signs - are the peers. Who are your teenager’s friends? Who is she close to? Of course, don't stomp your way all over their friendship, then you can say goodbye to any confidences. Be there for them - show them they can trust you, that you care - and they might come to you when there's trouble.
4. Stay in touch with teachers regularly. Establish a comfort zone where a teacher feels comfortable sharing feedback about your child.
5. Develop a relationship of trust. Sit your child down and explain that no matter what bad deeds they might have done, no one can hold that ransom over their heads to coerce them to do anything they don't wish to do. You should be their first port of call when they are in trouble, no matter how bad it might make them look in the short term. Again, this cannot happen overnight or in words alone.
The real challenge is most likely not Blue Whale but our own social selves.