The government needs to approach Blue Whale and other internet induced suicides differently — some suggestions

While there are people who say the Blue Whale game is a myth, the fact is that the internet and social media play a role in aiding and inducing suicide.

The Deccan Chronicle has just reported that the mastermind’ behind the internet suicide game, Blue Whale has been arrested- a 17-year-old Russian girl. The arrest of this young woman, if she is the ‘death group administrator’ as alleged by Russian investigators, is clearly just one small step toward solving the larger problem of internet induced suicide.

 The government needs to approach Blue Whale and other internet induced suicides differently — some suggestions

The internet and social media play a tremendous role in aiding and inducing suicide.

While there are those who say the Blue Whale game is a myth, the fact is that the internet and social media play a tremendous role in aiding and inducing suicide.  The risk to children is also greater than before, as their accessibility and exposure on the internet increases. In fact, the increasing number of suicides, some attributed to Blue Whale, have out schools around India on alert.

At this juncture, it is essential for all involved parties, the government, the community and the online community to come together and resolve this problem as a whole. Here is a look at some of the steps that can be taken.

Inadequacy of govt’s attempt to tackle the Blue Whale

The increasing reports of possible Blue Whale related suicides drove the Indian government to issue a letter to top internet platforms including Google, Facebook, Whatsapp, Yahoo, Instagram and Microsoft to remove all links to the Blue Whale game. However, this is hardly an adequate solution, since firstly, effectively monitoring and removing all Blue Whale related content on these sites is impossible, and secondly, there is nothing to stop this content from resurfacing on other sites, not to mention on the dark net. It is clear that the government needs to approach the problem differently.

Factors promoting internet induced suicide

To solve this problem, the government needs to look at the various factors promoting internet induced suicide and start with tackling those. A major focus should also be on developing suitable technology to deal with the problem. In addition, it must be acknowledged that a game like Blue Whale will be turned to by persons who are already in some sort of pain or are already suicidal. The awareness and effort is required on the part of the community as well.

A research paper on Suicide and Social Media published in the American Journal of Public Health (the AJPH paper), back in 2012, had analyzed the many ways in which social media can influence and induce suicide.  Instances of dedicated sites, anonymous chat rooms, easy availability of information online, the formation of suicide pacts, etc. are some of the ways in which the internet aids/induces suicide. With progress in technology, this problem has become worse, with reports of using artificial intelligence to identify and lure vulnerable people to such suicide inducing sites.

Specific liability for those aiding/inducing suicide online

The AJPH paper talks of a media contagion effect or the effect social media has on suicidal behaviour. Suicide pacts, with strangers and known persons, also serve the same purpose. The Indian Penal Code punishes abetment of suicide with up to 10 years. More stringent laws, specific to those inducing online suicide are needed, due to the wide range of people this can reach.

For example, though the perpetrator of the Blue Whale Challenge has reportedly been caught, the effects of her invention are so far-reaching that they are hard to control. It cannot be said how far and wide the game spread, or how many people were inspired to invent similar games as a result.

Block dedicated pro-suicide websites, apps

The easy availability of information on suicide, and online websites, apps and communities dedicated to suicide, play a major role. Chat rooms, discussion forums and online bulletin boards also encourage and spread suicide related news. For instance, the AJPH paper reports 220 cases of people in Japan committing suicide using a specific gas, a method which reportedly was introduced via internet message boards. These sites normalize, encourage and even glorify suicide.

One solution is to use Section 69A of the Information Technology Act to block websites found with major pro suicidal content or dedicated suicide sites. In addition to this, much like policing in real life, cyber-policing is required in such public forums.

Mandate suicide search result optimization and helpline notices

The AJPH paper reported that about half of search results on various sites for suicide related terms produced pro-suicide information. A change can be seen on sites like Google, where now a list of suicide helplines and anti-suicide sites are shown instead. This report of a 24-year-old girl who googled this, and landed up calling one of the suicide help lines instead, shows that this is a promising way to handle the problem. Similarly, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites have dedicated self-harm teams.

Putting up suicide help lines, counselling help lines, anti-bullying announcements and the like on such websites should be made mandatory. Suicide related search result optimization should also be made mandatory. Technology should also be used and developed to identify suicidal tendencies as well as bullying behaviour and deal with it.

Make self-harm videos illegal

Unlike on Google, self-harm videos are still easily found on YouTube. The AJPH paper reports that many of these do not even have an age restriction for viewing them. Current laws do not make such videos illegal, leaving any consequences for those propagating such content.  Thus, one step can be to make such videos illegal, except when they are for the limited purpose of preventing self-harm. Other similar measures like mandatory helpline notices, search result optimization norms and putting age restrictions are required to control this.

Laws specific to cyber bullying, harassment, stalking

Cyberbullying and harassment can turn so severe that people have been driven to suicide. For example, incessant cyber-harassment by her classmates drove a 12-year-old in the US to suicide.

The removal of Section 66A had some drawbacks, and the loss of a law against cyber bullying and harassment was one of them. Current laws punish sexual harassment and stalking of women. Similar norms are absent for men, and for cyber bullying in the case of children. A substitute for Section 66A, better worded and very specific to crimes like cyberbullying and harassment is needed.

Introduce parental accountability for cyber bullying

Another essential factor when dealing with bullying and harassment perpetrated by children is to hold the parents also accountable for their children’s behaviour. The penalty can start with a fine, and move on to imprisonment depending on the gravity of the crime. It is essential that parents be aware of and takes responsibility for their children’s activities, instead of providing free, unbridled access.

Parents need to restrict internet access and monitor their children’s online activities. Technology provides a solution to this in the form of parental controls that can be installed on devices.

Awareness and counselling at local levels

Increasing awareness of cyber crimes and other risks on the internet is essential. Equally essential is to make counselling mandatorily available at local levels- at schools, colleges, communities, and so on. One of the issues that arose with the Blue Whale reports were of parents who knew their children were suicidal but didn’t know what to do about it. Thus counselling solutions are as necessary for the victims as for their family members.

Additionally, at the school level, not only victims of the bullying, but also the bullies, and both the parents, must be counselled. It must be remembered that the bullies themselves are often in equal need of help.

The author is a lawyer with a specialisation in cyber laws and has co-authored books on the subject.

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