What the Blue Whale Challenge's popularity tells us about vulnerable teenagers

It isn’t unusual for social media challenges to take the world by storm these days. Everyone is familiar with the Mannequin Challenge (2016) and the Ice-Bucket Challenge (2014). These challenges may be labelled “absurd” or “funny” but nothing beats the level of insanity that the “Blue Whale” challenge has to offer.

The “Blue Whale” is an underground, challenge-based game where the user is presented with daily tasks by an assigned administrator. These tasks last for 50 days and the user must send photographic evidence of completion. The challenges are dangerous and sinister and include tasks like running across the streets during heavy traffic, not speaking to anyone at all for an entire day, carving numbers or pictures of whales on the body, waking up at ungodly hours, watching disturbing videos, and it all ends on the fiftieth day with the user being encouraged to commit suicide as the final task in order to win the game. It is believed that if the user gets cold feet and wishes to back out, he or she is threatened by the administrator that they have all personal details of the user, and failure to complete the task would bring harm to them or their loved ones.

Blue Whale isn't the real issue — we need to examine why a teen would prefer death to life. File Photo/Reuters

Blue Whale isn't the real issue — we need to examine why a teen would prefer death to life. File Photo/Reuters

It is alleged that the Blue Whale Game has been responsible for 130 teenage suicides in Russia alone between November 2015 and April 2016. On 29 July, India woke up to the existence of the “Blue Whale” when a 14-year-old boy in Mumbai committed suicide by jumping off a seven-storeyed building. The Mumbai police is not sure of a direct link between the suicide and the “Blue Whale” challenge, although in the past week, two other cases (one in Solapur and the other in Madhya Pradesh, of a teen runaway and a student whose suicide bid was foiled by a teacher, respectively) have been reportedly linked to the game.

There are several others who doubt the very existence of the “Blue Whale”, but instead of engaging in these debates, the real issue that needs to be addressed is teen suicide. Recently, a Netflix show called 13 Reasons Why was met with a lot of criticism as it was believed to glorify teen suicide under the pretext of raising awareness  about the issue.

Why would troubled teenagers choose taking their own lives over seeking help? What causes teenagers to reach out to the curator and affirm their participation despite the knowledge that the online game is self-harming and threatening? Is it just because teenagers are more impulsive and more likely to take risks and act daring than children younger than them and adults?

We all live in an era where it is impossible to imagine life without technology. Social media influences our lives to such an extent that the boundaries between the real world and the virtual world are completely blurred. According to a study done by Chen & Lee (2013), there is a connection between more time spent online and a decline in face-to-face communication with family and peers, which leads to a feeling of loneliness and depression. Research also indicates that frequent exposure to other users’ positive self-presentations of Facebook produces feelings of inadequacy and deprivation as individuals tend to believe that others have better lives than themselves. By looking at the happy photos of other users, people formulate the opinion that others are always happy and living good lives in contrast to their own (Chou & Edge, 2012).

In India, three to nine per cent of teenagers meet the criteria for depression at any one time, and at the end of adolescence, as many as 20 percent of teenagers report a lifetime prevalence of depression (Bansal et. al., 2009). Parental fights, inability to cope with studies, teasing at school were identified as some of the causes behind depression in adolescents. Adolescent depression may affect the teen’s socialisation, family relations and academic performance, often with serious long-term consequences. Adolescents diagnosed with depression are at risk for substance abuse and psychosocial impairment. The most devastating outcome of adolescent depression is suicide — it is the third leading cause of death among older adolescents (Centre for Diseases Control, WISQARS). However, it is unfortunate that despite such a high prevalence, the issue of depression among adolescents is still largely ignored in our country. Instead of letting the depressed teenager suffer in silence, proper measures need to be taken to identify and help them.

In today’s world, parents and teachers, both, need to be as tech-savvy as adolescents so that they can be vigilant and carefully monitor their child’s activity on social media across all platforms. Parents should also make a note of the kind of games their child plays. Research has shown that violent video games increase adolescent aggression, and teenagers who play risk-glorifying, mature-rated video games are more likely to engage in a wide range of behaviours beyond aggression, including smoking, alcohol use, risky sex, and risky driving.

The Government of Maharashtra is trying to ban the “Blue Whale” game and while the government is justified in doing so, there is a need to understand that the “Blue Whale” is not the real problem. The actual problem is of a teenager feeling so lost and so lonely that self-harm and suicide appear more appealing than wellness and life, and this is where the role of the parents comes in — they may have to invest more quality time and emotional energy on their children than they are investing at present. In some cases, professional therapy may be required for both parents and teenagers, especially if the teen is not comfortable in communicating with his or her parents on certain topics.

Philip Budeikin of Russia is believed to be the man responsible for creating the “Blue Whale” challenge. According to him, his victims were nothing but “biological waste” and all he was doing was cleansing society. It is imperative that the home environment and the school environment are able to convey to the children and teenagers that they are important, and that their lives matter. Addressing the root causes of vulnerability among adolescents and talking to them with compassion and tact about harmful groups that exist both online and offline will help defeat the dangers imposed by the “Blue Whale” game because teenagers need to know not only how to support one another, but also whom to unconditionally turn to for help when troubled.

References:

Chen W., Lee K.-H. (2013). Sharing, liking, commenting, and distressed? The pathway between Facebook interaction and psychological distress. Cyberpsychol. Behav. Soc. Netw. 16 728–734. 10.1089/cyber.2012.0272

Chou, H.T. & Edge, N. (2012). “They are happier and having better lives than I am”: the impact of using Facebook on perceptions of others’ lives. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15(2), 117-121.

Divya Srivastava is a counsellor and psychotherapist based in Mumbai. She runs The Silver Lining, which addresses issues related to mental health.


Published Date: Aug 13, 2017 10:18 am | Updated Date: Aug 13, 2017 10:18 am


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