16-year-old Manoj, a class 11 student from Perumkulam, Thiruvananthapuram was found hanging in his bedroom on July 26. A few weeks after his death, Manoj’s mother Anu told the police on Tuesday that she suspected her son committed suicide as he was playing the Blue Whale Challenge.
Anu told Manorama News that her son had discovered a new game called the Blue Whale Challenge. Morbidly, Manoj told her that there were three possibilities for how the game could end – either the player ends his life, kills someone else or loses his mind. And while Manoj promised Anu, on her insistence, that he would discontinue playing the game, he apparently continued to do so without her knowledge.
What is the Blue Whale challenge
The challenge originated in Russia and targets children between 10 and 14 years of age, reported Leonid Bershidsky for Bloomberg. It spread to several countries through social media and was brought to light in 2016 when Galina Mursaliyeva, a journalist with Russian publication Novaya Gazeta investigated her daughter’s online activity after she committed suicide.
What she uncovered was a culture of online ‘death groups’ on a Russian social network called VKokakte where the administrator or curator would assign tasks to the vulnerable teen.
The tasks ranged from telling the participating teen to self-harm, send photos of the same to the curator, climb a crane or ledge, not speak to anyone all day, to wake up in the wee hours of the morning to watch scary videos and listen to music the curator sends, speak to other ‘whales’ (participants) and finally, commit suicide by jumping off a high building.
The tasks also involve social media platforms like Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook where at some point in these 50 tasks, the teen has to post photos of the self-harm (often, a blue whale drawn on a body part with a blade) and use dedicated hashtags.
If, at some point, the child gets cold feet or tries to back out of the challenge, the curators reportedly threaten them, often saying that their parents will be harmed.
Why would a child voluntarily participate in the challenge?
The tasks in the challenge are clearly oriented towards isolating the child and pushing her/him to self-harm. A question which would come to mind is – why would a person voluntarily take orders from a virtual entity which would cause her/him pain?
The answer lies in problems which many teenagers across the world face on a daily basis – peer pressure, depression and the need for validation.
Vandhana, a Chennai-based clinical psychologist confirms what reports across the web indicate – that the teens who are likely to fall prey to challenges such as these are already going through depression, anxiety or some form of depressive episodes. “A person in sound mental health will not resort to self-harm or seeking validation online,” she says.
Vandhana explains that teenage brings with it a plethora of physical as well as psychological changes in the child, which makes teenagers a vulnerable demographic.
Justin Patchin, co-director of the Wisconsin-based Cyberbullying Research Center, told Beth Greenfield for Yahoo! Beauty something similar about teens. “The last thing a teen wants is to be excluded,” Justin had said. Adolescent psychologist Barbara Greenberg said that the game is deceptive because it leads depressed kids to believe that they are playing a game, but they are, in fact, dealing with mental health issues.
Once the teen is inducted into a challenge such as this, she/he will meet more like-minded people, which solidifies their sense of belonging. “As they complete each task, it gets associated to their sense of achievement and self-worth. It also induces another form of peer pressure – that which arises from emotional manipulation by the curator and the online community, preventing the teen from seeking help,” Vandhana says.
She also points out that the person who devised this challenge also probably had psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies, and can easily relate to the children who come in contact with him.
Incidentally, a Blue Whale administrator, Philipp Budeikin, was arrested in May this year, and pleaded guilty to inciting at least 16 teenage girls to commit suicide. He believed that all his victims were “biological waste”, “represented no value to society” and through his challenge, he was merely “cleansing society”.
The 21-year-old started the challenge in 2013 and faces trial. He reportedly suffered from bipolar disorder and had an abusive childhood.
What are the signs of someone participating in the challenge?
Vandhana says that parents and teachers must look out for signs of self-harm (like cuts and bruises) and sudden behavioural changes in the child. “It’s not just sudden sullenness or withdrawal that you should look out for, but also sudden bursts of over-excitement. Anyone who knows the temperament of the teen should be able to notice them,” she says.
UK-based children’s advice group NSPCC also lays downs some indicators of a child facing online abuse. These are:
However, Vandhana advises that parents should not snoop, but have some sort of monitoring mechanism to keep track of the child’s online activity. For more information on how you can monitor your child’s online interactions without breaching their privacy or violating there trust, refer to TNM’s article on the right way to monitor your child's use of technology.
How to reach out to troubled teens?
Vandhana says that it helps to speak to the child and validate what they are feeling. “Once the child knows that there are others who know about their state of mind, understand them, and can be confided in, they should find it easier to open up and seek help,” she says.
However, in the long run, infrequent awareness campaigns about mental health fall short of tackling contemporary mental health challenges, especially given the easy access children have to social media these days. Vandhana says that maintaining a silence will not help any more.
“Mental health should be a small part of the curriculum. It needs to be talked about – between parents and children, educators and students and even peers. Only when there is conversation about these issues will the child know that there are others like him/her and that they are not alone,” Vandhana asserts.