- Blue Whale: Should you be worried about online pressure groups?
- The truth of ‘Blue Whale’ challenge: A game said to ‘brainwash’ teens into committing suicides
Blue Whale: Should you be worried about online pressure groups?
Teen Suicides and Pressure Groups
Reports are circulating in the media of vulnerable people being encouraged to take their own lives by following a series of online challenges.
In Russia, the deaths of some teenagers have been linked to the ‘Blue Whale’ challenge – though these reports have not been confirmed.
The idea is that individuals are invited to complete a number of tasks within a 50-day period. The tasks become increasingly harmful and end with the individual being challenged to take their own life.
There is concern that the idea is spreading around the world on social media networks.
With questions over whether or not the Blue Whale challenge actually exists, and with no confirmed link between the deaths in Russia and Blue Whale, how concerned should you be?
What is Blue Whale?
There is some confusion about the origin of Blue Whale, but the title is believed to be a reference to an act carried out by some blue whales, who appear to beach themselves on purpose, causing them to die.
The name is apparently being used by an alleged online pressure group, which is said to assign a curator to individual participants who then encourages them to complete tests over the course of 50 days.
These assigned tasks reportedly escalate from straightforward demands such as watching a macabre video or horror film to something more sinister – even leading to suicide.
Unfortunately it is not unusual for teenagers to be drawn to social media groups that ultimately have a detrimental effect on their mental health.
The online group associated with the Blue Whale reports is said to have thousands of members and subscribers on Facebook and YouTube.
The name has cropped up in countries including Russia, Ukraine, Spain, Portugal, France and the UK.
How worried should I be?
Although authorities in Russia are reportedly investigating links between the suicides of a number of teenagers and online pressure groups, there have been no confirmed reports of links to Blue Whale.
What police are looking for in these criminal investigations are previous conversations between the deceased and social media users that may have had an influence on any actions taken.
There are also reports of suicide cases being investigated in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Russia and Kyrgyzstan, with a focus on links to internet groups.
How can I spot the signs?
Children’s advice groups such as the NSPCC can offer guidance on how to detect signs of online grooming – the building of an emotional connection to gain trust – and how to protect your child and prevent the situation from escalating.
There are a number of possible signs, but they are not always obvious because offenders exercise discretion in order to avoid being detected or identified.
Among the most common signs to watch out for include children who:
- become very secretive, especially about what they are doing online
- are spending a lot of time on the internet and social media
- are switching screens on their device when approached
- are withdrawn or angry after using the internet or sending text messages
- have lots of new phone numbers or email addresses on their device
What should I do?
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop), a UK government agency, points out that sometimes change in a child’s behaviour is completely normal and it is important not to overreact.
Having a calm and open conversation, Ceop says, is an effective way of determining the cause of any behavioural change, tackling any concerns head-on and offering support and reassurance.
An education programme set up by the organisation, ThinkUKnow, also says that it should be made clear to the individual when approached that any discussion is not going to result in punishment.
Children, it says, often avoid reporting their own concerns if they believe that their internet access will be revoked, for example.
Parents are advised to contact police if a child is thought to be in danger
Another UK-based advice group, Get Safe Online, told the BBC that it was aware of the “horrific” Blue Whale reports and said that it was unfortunate that groups were “willing to abuse these platforms”.
The chief executive, Tony Neate, said dialogue was essential for addressing issues of peer pressure if a child is “acting strangely”.
“It will allow them to take a step back, away from the pressures,” he said, adding that this will help them to realise that it is “not something they have to, or should, be taking part in”.
Mr Neate also advised against “blanket bans” on internet use and said that the importance of privacy settings should be explained to all users.
He said that speaking openly to other parents and teachers can help raise awareness of potential online threats and “open the path for other instances to be reported”.
“Never shy away from reporting something that has occurred online to the police if you think your child, or someone else’s child is in danger,” Mr Neate said.
“This is how we can warn others and make sure teenagers don’t get caught up in horrific games like this.”
The truth of ‘Blue Whale’ challenge: A game said to ‘brainwash’ teens into committing suicides
The claim is that “Blue Whale” game has been responsible for more than 130 suicides in Russia.
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.
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.
Source: Indian Express
Thanks BBC, Indian Express and for reading BEWARE: Blue Whale Challenge
Image: Are YOUR children playing the Blue Whale challenge? Police warn British parents over ‘suicide game behind hundreds of Russian teen deaths’
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