Editor's Note: Blue Whale claimed its first victim in Tamil Nadu on 31 August. A 19-year-old college student from Tamil Nadu's Madurai district committed suicide by hanging himself inside his house. This article, originally published on 17 August, 2017, is being republished in the view of the latest report.
Nithin Jose (name changed on request), a third semester degree student at a prominent college in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, could not control his curiosity when one of his friends shared a link on Facebook: The Blue Whale Challenge.
The 20-year-old downloaded the game and began playing it. As he went through it, step-by-step, he found the game overwhelming him. Thankfully, he quit.
But he only realised he warded off certain death after reading reports linking recent suicides to the deadly game.
Nithin told Firstpost he may have lost his life if he he'd continued the game, which orders the player to commit suicide at the end. He says the "game master" threatened to harm him and his family if he did not complete the challenge. But Nithin simply ignored him.
Just crack it, yaar. We will take it as it comes.
"I felt my mind floating after the 15th step. I was obeying the commands of the game master voluntarily. It was a kind of hypnotism. My mind was being overpowered. I was scared of quitting since the game master collected all sorts of information about me and my family. But I took a chance. Fortunately, nothing has happened to me," he says.
But many children are not like Nithin. They are unable to overcome their fears and withstand the blackmail of the shadowy game master. They keep going. The parents of two boys who committed suicide recently suspect that the Blue Whale Challenge caused their deaths.
Police have launched a probe into the deaths of a 16-year-old boy at Thiruvananthapuram and a 22-year-old in Kannur after their parents told authorities that their children had played the Blue Whale Challenge.
Manoj, a plus one student at Vilappilsala, a village on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram, and Savant, an ITI student at Thalaserry in Kannur district, hanged themselves.
The parents began suspecting that their children had played the game after reading media reports. Manoj's mother Anu says her son's actions matched the steps of the game she found online.
Anu, an IT professional, told TV channels her son even hinted that he would die. She says Manoj promised to stop playing the game after she spoke to him but he continued playing it. He committed suicide on 26 July.
Savant's mother also tried to stop her son from playing the game. She took him to multiple counseling sessions but they had little effect. He continued to play the game behind her back. Savant committed suicide in May.
Psychiatrists say it is not easy to wean youngsters off the Blue Whale Challenge because it is designed to enslave them. Dr V Chalam Das, senior psychiatry consultant at Sunrise Hospital in Kochi, compares the game to drugs and alcohol. Das says that after one enters the game, it becomes very difficult to escape.
Das tells Firstpost that children with psychological problems are more vulnerable to the game. Children suffering from ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder) are also more vulnerable to such games.
"The number of children affected by ADHD is steadily rising in Kerala. A big reason for this is lack of parental care. Children of migrants and divorced parents are more prone to ADHD. Since the number of such families is very high in the state, aggressive games like Blue Whale Challenge may spread fast in Kerala compared to other states," the psychiatrist says.
Recent media reports suggest that the game has made inroads into Kerala and that there have been close to 2,000 downloads.
Thomas Joseph (name changed on request), a lecturer at the Thiruvananthapuram college where a student attempted to play the game, says the number could be much higher as the game is widely available on social networking sites and on WhatsApp.
Thomas says many students receive the game's links. He says he began cautioning students after he received a game link through Whatsapp.
But police say they are unaware if anyone has actually downloaded the game and played it. Manoj Abraham, Inspector General of Police, Southern Range, says it is not easy to confirm if kids are playing the game as the Blue Whale Challenge is not an app that can be downloaded from websites or an official playstore.
Manoj, head of cyberdome, a cyber security agency of the Kerala police, says an inquiry is on to determine how far the game has actually spread in the state.
However, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan says the Blue Whale Challenge is only growing in popularity. He terms the spread of the game as a challenge to society and says he urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to quickly ban the game. The Centre acted swiftly, imposing a ban.
However, psychiatrists and educationists don't think a ban will help crack down on the game. Dr KS David, director of Central Institute of Behavioural Sciences, Kochi, says a ban on the game is like treating the symptom of the disease and not the cause.
"Parents who put pressure on their children to perform well in school and college are the real culprits. They want to live vicariously through their children rather than finding out what their kids love and nurturing them. Such children are more likely to fall into this trap," David says.
He adds that this trend is gaining ground in Kerala since most families have only one or two children. Parents tend to spoil their children, he says. Very few kids don't have smart phones. He says that completely restricting access to gadgets such as smartphones and laptops is the only answer as it is impractical for working parents to monitor their children around-the-clock.
However, Dr Mohan Roy, a psychiatrist at Thiruvananthapuram Medical College, feels that parents and teachers are quite capable of checking the menace. He says that parents can determine if their children are playing the Blue Whale Challenge by monitoring their behaviour and keeping an eye out for any unexplained injuries or wounds.
"Children who are addicted to computer games also tend to stay up late. Those playing the Blue Whale Challenge lock themselves in their rooms and are awake into the wee hours," he says.
Mohan says Manoj's parents might have been able to save their son if they'd sought the help of a psychiatrist when they noticed the cuts on his wrist and chest. Sadly, they did not act even after he indicated that he might kill himself and paid dearly for their mistake, he says.
The Blue Whale Challenge has parents fretting across the state. Sreedevi, mother of a Kochi student going to college, says that she enforces strict discipline. She does not allow her son to lock his room or take his smartphone outside their home. Jinu Raj, a Kochi IT professional, says he took back the smartphones he gave his young children and placed their computer where he could monitor them.
The government has directed educational institutions to run an awareness campaign against hazardous games such as the Blue Whale Challenge. Vijayan has also appealed to parents to remain cautious. He says the game is being shared through other names: A Silent House, A Sea of Whales and Wake Me Up.
He says that his government is taking all possible steps, including its cyber cell and cyberdome, to fight the menace of the Blue Whale Challenge.
The road ahead is long and arduous.
Updated Date: Aug 31, 2017 10:48 AM