By Sanika Joshi
The Blue Whale Challenge began with “F57”, one of the names of the so-called “death groups” of the VKontakte, a Russian social networking platform, in 2013. It consists of a series of tasks assigned to a player by a ‘curator’ over a period of 50 days. The players are expected to send photographic proof of completion of each challenge to the curator. The challenges start off easy, with watching certain videos, waking up at odd hours and going to certain places but escalate quickly to physical self-harm that includes cutting oneself and carving words and patterns into one’s skin. The final challenge is to commit suicide, similar to a ‘beached whale’.
First step: Trapping the prey
It is not a downloadable game, software or application but rather a social media phenomenon, much like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge or the Mannequin Challenge. The Blue Whale, however, enters social networks through secretive groups and hence the exact workings of the game remain unknown. It is believed that a prospective player has to use certain hashtags on social media platforms to show their interest in taking up the challenge. An anonymous curator then contacts the person through Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp or any other platform to converse and assign tasks. During the course of the 50 days, the curator can learn the player’s personal information, secrets and sometimes even manage to get nudes from the player. All of this can be used to blackmail the player in case he/she tries to quit the challenge.
Beware of early warning signals
India reported its first alleged Blue Whale suicide on 26th July 2017, the victim was a 16-year old boy from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerela. At the time, the death was registered as a case of unnatural death. On 14th August, the boy’s mother informed the police that she suspected the death to be related to the Blue Whale Challenge. The victim, Manoj, had allegedly confided in his mother about playing the game. She said she had tried, in vain, to persuade him to refrain from playing it. His friends and family noticed the changes in Manoj’s behaviour in the last nine months. He would set out to see the beach all by himself, stay awake all night and go to sleep at 5 in the morning, and frequent cemeteries. On one occasion, he plunged into a river despite not knowing swimming. On another occasion, he made a friend carve three alphabets on his hand using a compass. ”He started behaving strangely last November. First, he went to a beach all alone. He lied to us that he was going for some programme with his friends but went to the beach alone. In January, I saw three alphabets carved on his hand – A, B and I. His friend was scared to do it, but Manoj forced him to,” the mother told Malayala Manorama. Two weeks before his death, Manoj asked his mother if she would be sad if he died. On trying to convince him that she would be devastated, he simply told his mother to give his share of love to his sister.
Not an isolated incident
On 30th July, a 14-year-old boy committed suicide by jumping from the seventh floor of an Andheri (East) building in the city of Mumbai. Manpreet Singh Sahani had told his schoolmates that he won’t be attending school from the following Monday. Though the police did not find any representation of the tell-tale whale etched onto his skin, they learnt of a suicide pact from the victim’s friends’ Whatsapp group and the cyber police are scanning through the ninth grader’s gadgets.
On 10th August, two teenage boys, one from Indore and the other from Solapur, were apprehended just before they could complete the final challenge. The class VII boy from Indore is even said to have recorded all 50 stages of the challenge in his school diary.
On 12th August, a tenth-grade student from Anandpur, West Midnapore district of West Bengal, allegedly committed suicide as a result of playing the game. His body was discovered in the bathroom, with his face covered with a plastic bag tied around his neck by a cotton cord.
Due to the secretive nature of the ‘game’, no concrete evidence or direct link has been found to The Blue Whale game. Due to the lack of an application or such, it is not possible to ban the game itself. The only way to reduce or limit the number of people taking up the Blue Whale Challenge is by pressuring the social media giants to deactivate the hashtags used to play the game. The government has directed top internet platforms such as Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Microsoft and Yahoo to immediately take down any links leading to the deadly game.
Break the taboo
The alarming rise in the popularity of the challenge among teenagers says a lot about the state of mind of today’s young adults. 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. 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.
Let us hope that the unfortunate deaths so far encourage people to talk to teenagers around them and help them rid their depression and prevent further deaths.
Featured Image Source: Pexels
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