• Both open and closed-membership groups containing posts on suicide in VKontakte (VK), Europe’s largest social network, will reportedly be blocked following a Russian media report on teenage deaths allegedly provoked by such online communities.
•Russia’s media watchdog Roskomnadzor together with state consumer rights agency Rospotrebnadzor are checking information published in Novaya Gazeta on Monday that showed over a hundred teenagers killed themselves within six months after becoming members of such online groups.
•The journalistic investigation titled “The Groups of death” claimed that 130 children suicides committed in different Russian cities between November 2015 and April 2016 are mostly related to a number of VK groups that have been “systematically and consistently working to step by step push the children” to death.
•“Some grown-up people... have been working with children with knowledge of their interests and hobbies, using the language and culture they like. They work with the knowledge of psychology, convincing girls that they are ‘fat’ and telling boys that they are ‘losers’ in this world, but there is another world in which they are ‘chosen.’”
“New deaths have also been announced” in these groups, the report claims, adding that it has passed its information on to law enforcement and investigative authorities, as well as the media watchdog.
•Roskomnadzor has already blocked the vast majority of open VK groups containing suicide related materials, Interfax reported. Meanwhile, VK, which has over 350 million users, has said it will independently permanently block similar closed groups following a Rospotrebnadzor request, TASS reported. While the investigation is ongoing, phone numbers of psychological hotlines for teenagers will also be published on some VK accounts;
•According to the consumer rights agency, some 30 percent of all links containing information on how to commit suicide and the same percentage of the calls it receives are related to VK. Over 9,300 pages containing such content have been blocked by the agency since November of 2012, RIA Novosti reported;
•However, at the same time as some online groups are being blocked, even more pop up under new names, the Novaya Gazeta article says.
“In the place of one blocked [group promoting suicide], others immediately appear. The scheme is well worked-out, it’s called ‘Invite.’ When such a group is launched, it posts an announcement offering ‘lifelong invites’ for sale for 100 rubles [$1.5] to access a ‘private group.’”
•The groups tell its users to make a copy of their payment details, saying that if a group is banned, they would still regain membership in a new one after proof of payment is provided;
•There are no less than 1,500 groups on VK promoting suicide, according to the article. Novaya Gazeta journalist Galina Mursalieva, the report’s author, who launched her own investigation with the help of some parents whose teenage children died after joining such groups, calls them “radioactive junk heaps” that adults can resist “but children breathe in.”;
•Parents in central Russia lost their 12-year-old daughter in December of last year when she fell from a 14th-floor balcony. Her mother received a call from her child’s number, but found a medic on the other end of the line who told her: “It’s not your dear daughter, it’s an ambulance doctor, your child is dead.” Shortly before that dreadful call, someone else had called the woman’s daughter, after which the girl rushed out of her home, never to return;
•“[Before her death] she started to draw butterflies and whales a lot. I liked her drawings, they were beautiful, made me proud of her talents. Not for a second did I have an alarming thought. How could I have known that those [online groups] have made them symbolic: butterflies live only for a day, while whales strand themselves on land, committing suicide,” the girl’s mother told the newspaper;
•However, the girl’s father doubts his daughter’s death was a deliberate suicide. Her school bag was found on a roof too far for a girl to have thrown it, the father noted. He also said that her body was lying in a “suspicious spot, as if she had been pushed.”;
•Three more girls in other cities across Russia died on the same day, the report claimed, saying that all had been members of the same online groups;
•The report also refers to an online video recorded in February that shows a teenage boy falling from a bridge. The journalist says that two men can be seen approaching the “hesitating boy” before he falls, after which they run away. Images from the death of another girl, whose head was cut off by a train after she laid down on tracks, also appeared online “almost immediately,” the report says;
•A day before she died in November 2015, the girl posted a selfie on VK of her standing by a moving train with the caption “bye.” She reportedly became an “icon” for many teenagers in online suicidal communities after a photo of her severed head lying beside her body appeared;
•“Underage suicides have been committed long before [this] tragedy happened. But why right now has it turned into a symbol? When a lot of time is dedicated to studying it, one can see that the ‘promotion’ of [this girl’s] death has been thoroughly planned. Reposts of it have been paid for, her clone pages have also been offered for sale,” the report says, adding that photographs of the teenager’s grave, as well as pieces of her blood-stained scarf and screen shots of her chats, have been on sale and in great demand;
•The article caused much discussion in Russia, both in traditional and social media. It was criticized by a number of journalists as well as medical experts specializing in teenage suicides;
•Critics said the story was biased against the public groups it accused of serious misdeeds, and that the author had failed to provide any evidence that such pages can make teenagers otherwise not contemplating suicide take their lives. Teenage suicides are a serious issue, but research links them to family trouble, bullying, a lack of psychological support in dealing with problems, and other personal factors;
•A teen leaps to his death. A school student found with several cut marks on his arm. A college student jumps in front of a train and dies. Doesn’t sound new and doesn’t make the news, does it?
•Now, sample this. A teen leaps to his death, suspected to be playing the Blue Whale Challenge. A school student allegedly playing Blue Whale found with several cut marks on his arm. A college student jumps in front of a train and dies, family says he was victim of Blue Whale. These are headlines which have caught nationwide attention;
•This intriguing new concept spread like wildfire. Everyone latched on to it to link the game to several suicides that occurred across the country since August. But how much of truth is there in these stories? Were teenagers not harming and killing themselves before this “challenge” came along? Is it easier to just blame an external factor like this instead of talking about mental health?
The first case which rang alarm bells was the suicide of a 14-year-old Mumbai boy. His friends started the speculation that he was doing the challenge and that’s when the term ‘Blue Whale’ entered mainstream chatter in India. The police, however, found no evidence to link his death to the game;
•Following this, reports suddenly started coming in from across the country, with at least 6 suicides being blamed on the game in a month. In all cases, the victim’s friends, family or school authorities made these claims. But the police didn’t find any substantial evidence to back them up. Apart from the suicides, many teens were also reported to have been “rescued” from the grip of the game. In Indore, a 13-year-old was prevented from jumping from the third floor of his school. By now, the hysteria around the challenge was growing and the school authorities said the boy had admitted to playing the game. However, media reportsquote the mother as saying that this was all a misunderstanding and her son wasn’t playing the game. She explained that the teachers simply asked him if he played video games and he being an avid gamer said yes;
•A man from Midnapore in West Bengal claimed his son was involved in it, “but during interrogation, the boy confessed that he was not playing the game. He had read of the steps that were believed to be a part of the game. A friend sent him a photo of the impression of the whale that players supposedly have to make on their body on Facebook and he cut himself to do it,” reported Hindustan Times;
•As a result of all this, the cops also have started probing the Blue Whale angle in all suicide cases, which then promptly makes the headlines;
•Some instances also have the kids themselves saying they were playing the game. The game apparently coaxes vulnerable teens to take a series of 50 challenges ranging from waking up at odd hours, to self mutilation to eventually killing themselves, all the while sharing their experiences via social media with the administrators;
•However, now that the details of the challenge are so widely known, many vulnerable teens are doing some of the self-harming tasks of the game without actually “playing” it or being coerced to do so by the so-called administrators;
•There’s also a lack of understanding of what the game actually is since most of this panic has resulted from hearsay;
•As the police struggled to find concrete evidence to link the deaths with the game, fear gave way to doubt, and stories challenging the Blue Whale theory also started appearing in the news and social media;
•Many like cyber expert Pranesh Prakash completely dismiss the existence of any such game, and call it a “hoax” and an “urban legend.”Interestingly, it is not just in India that cops have been unable to link the suicides with the game. According to online fact-checking website Snopes, while there have been allegations of Blue Whale-related deaths in Russia and Europe, investigations found no definite links;
•It traced back the origin of the whole narrative of the Blue Whale Challenge to a Russian media report which linked a wave of suicides in the country to the game. It was then picked up by the media worldwide;
•In reality, the “creator” of the game Philipp Budeikin was arrested by the Russian police for having influenced 17 young girls to commit suicide and not 130 as was widely reported;
•After that, the game is said to have been kept alive by unrelated administrators, who roped in teens to play it;
•But whether or not there are any administrators running this game, the truth is that the graphic details of this challenge are out there and many youngsters suffering from some form of mental health issues may be trying it out themselves;
•The authorities are up in arms against the game calling for a ban on it. The matter has even reached the Supreme Court, which is hearing a petition on Friday. Many have asked for all links and mentions of the game to be removed from social media and for relevant sites be blocked on the internet;
•There is just one problem. The Blue Whale Challenge is not an app that can be downloaded or a game that is played on desktops. It’s simply a list of 50 tasks. The real issue behind these suicides is something which has always existed and has never gotten this much attention – mental health;
•Is it then just an easy way to blame these deaths on an external factor instead of focusing on the deep-rooted problem of mental health, which is still talked about in hushed tones in the country?
•Speaking to The Quint, Child Psychiatrist Dr Amit Sen says:
We’re completely overlooking the main problem. About 6-7 cases might have been linked to this challenge. While according to recorded data, about 63,000 suicides occur annually in the age group of 10-24 in India. But it seems people have just found a new reason to blame these deaths on.
He adds that in most of these cases children are already battling mental health issues and get a sense of belonging by joining in a phenomenon like the Blue Whale Challenge. “Blue Whale may be a trigger but not the cause, definitely,” says Dr Sen.;
•Dr Sunil Mittal agrees and says it’s highly unlikely that a kid without mental heath problems would kill themselves because of a game like this.
"There are so many issues that these kids are facing, academic pressure, bullying, loneliness. There are so many causes for their disturbance and we do nothing to address those. But here we are, making such a song and dance about an imported phenomenon. There’s so much hype with the government and politicians jumping in. Where were these people all these years when mental health and the high rates of suicides needed attention?"
•Is internet restrictions, blocking sites and parental control the answer to handling the menace of teenage suicides? Many including the government think so.
•Shyama Chona, former Principal of Delhi Public School (DPS), RK Puram, says:
There have to be effective restrictions put on the internet usage of children. Parents must be vigilant and aware of what their child is doing on the internet. Mental health issues come later, first their access to social media has to be controlled.
•Mental health experts, however, beg to differ. Putting more and more restrictions is not the solution but understanding what the child is going through and looking within is important, says Sudeshna Nath, Senior School Counsellor, DPS Ghaziabad.
•When asked about the suicides of the girls he influenced, the creator of the game was reported as saying that, “They were dying happy. I was giving them what they didn’t have in real life: warmth, understanding, connections.”
•Schools have been sending notices to parents warning them about the blue whale challenge but it’s also important to create an atmosphere where the child can speak about their problems freely and they’re given proper counselling.
•If the schools give due respect and delegate proper work to counsellors, they are the most useful part of the school system. The schools have to diligently make the best possible use of them.
•Dr Sen adds that in most schools this is not happening and going to see the counsellor is still used and seen as a punishment by most teachers.
•India is known as the suicide capital of the world and has 63,000 annual suicides in the age group of 10-24 according to data released in 2013. There are hundreds of suicide groups online which vulnerable minds join. The blue whale challenge also grew out of one such online suicide group;
•And self-harm has become increasingly common in teens in the country. Although it’s difficult to gather concrete data to show this, various studies have established this;
•Ambuj Sen Patra, an 18-year-old who inflicted cut marks on himself for a long time in school and is undergoing therapy, says:
I know a lot of people of my age who harm themselves. For me personally, it felt like an outlet to ease all the other pain that I was going through mentally. Self-harm is also something that has been made popular by movies in the sense that they show it’s cool to slit your wrists etc to show your love.
•Our young are taking their lives. And mental health problems are the reason;
•They need much more attention than merely trying to find reasons like the blue whale challenge to blame their deaths on. So, while we’ve already brought the so-called game into mainstream dialogue, let’s address the real issue behind it?
(If you have suicidal thoughts, if you feel despair or if you know someone who needs help, guide them to credible mental health professionals.)