It is time parents and schools woke up to be more alert to erratic children, watch their social media behaviour, and seek professional help at the earliest
Recently a 13-year-old boy Parth Singh has committed suicide in UP’s Hamirpur district. He was found hanging in his bedroom. His father’s phone, with the Blue Whale page open, was lying there. Before this, some other teenagers committed suicide due to this. A 14-year-old student in Mumbai jumps off the terrace of a seven-storeyed building. In Thiruvananthapuram, a 16-year old boy hangs himself in his house. Another 22-year-old from Kerala is also found hanging at home in Kannur.
Despite hearing numerous warnings still, an engineering student in Kolkata believed to have completed several levels of the ‘Blue Whale’ suicide game had even carved an image of the animal on his arm with a blade. He had reached stage eight which needed him to etch the whale diagram on his arm. The next challenge was to cut his lip. But he was yanked away from the brink in time by his college friends, faculty and counselling by the West Bengal police. “I have come back,” the third year student said, displaying the now fading wounds of the Blue Whale etched on his left forearm. He had heard of the online game from a WhatsApp group warning against playing it. He thought it wasn’t a big deal and started playing in early August.
Any suicide is disconcerting, not only for the families of the victims but also for the community they lived in. However, the news of these four suicides is far more disturbing on several levels. These innocent lives were taken by the internet game called Blue Whale Challenge. It is a lethal online game that lures troubled youngsters and puts them on a path to suicide. Instead of seeking help from their immediate family, friends, relatives and teachers, these students felt they would find solace for their sufferings from a stranger online. The Blue Whale Challenge is a dare-based game, which requires participants to perform daily tasks for 50 days. During the course of the game, the participants could be asked to watch horror and psychic movies, cut their hands with blades and needles, causing self-harm. The Web being a largely uncontrolled and uncensored entity, it is very hard for us to be able to control all activities that young adults may indulge in.
The sudden popularity of this game in which the final task requires the player to commit suicide has forced the government to swing into action. The ban issue was recently raised in the Maharashtra assembly and in the Rajya Sabha by members who called for provisions to remove such games from websites. Copies of the issued order have been sent to the Ministry of Home Affairs as well as Ministry of Women and Child Development. Notably, Maneka Gandhi, the Minister for Women and Child Development, wrote to her counterpart in the Information and Technology Ministry to ban the game. Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan had also written to PM Modi to take action to stop the spread of the game. Eventually, the centre has directed Internet giants Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Microsoft and Yahoo to immediately remove the links of the game, which has also led to a number of suicides by children worldwide. But the Challenge is not a game that can be downloaded on a phone or a website and therefore be banned, Udbhav Tiwari from Centre of Internet and Society said. “Since there is no application or one specific website for the challenge, it can’t really be banned not unless you completely ban the internet,” Tiwari says.
The game originated on a social media site in Russia called VKontakte created by one Philipp Budeikin, 22, who is currently lodged in a Siberian jail. The game is said to psychologically provoke players to indulge in daring, self-destructive tasks for 50 days before finally taking the “winning” step of killing themselves and each task must be filmed and shared as “proof”. The series of tasks include binge watching of horror films, inflicting self-harm, waking up at 4.20 a.m. to watch psychedelic videos that the curator sends, and not talking to anyone throughout the day. So, what pushes young people with their entire future ahead to such limits?
A misplaced sense of identity is one of the major reasons. Adolescence is the time when children have an unstable sense of selfhood. Often, they grapple with questions of who they are, who they would want to be known as and where they fit in with their peers, family and the community at large. This constant internal turmoil pushes them to indulge in new, unconventional, risk behaviours, which can earn them the label of being unique, daring, and popular. They get enticed by such challenges, which seem to give them a false sense of purpose. The curators apparently spot their victims based on their posts on different online forums. “The administrators of the challenge use different online forums to reach out to their victims. It can be Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp or any other online forum,” Tiwari said. Till date, reports state that over 130 teenage lives have been taken by the game so far mostly in Russia, cross Russia and the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where it is said to be trending.
The shocking deaths of these kids raise many questions. Why are teenagers drawn to such a game which allegedly goads players into committing suicide? How does one identify those who are most vulnerable to the vicious designs of the game? And what roles can teachers and parents play in preventing such tragedies?
According to experts, teenagers are more vulnerable because the virtual world allows them to act freely without the restrictions prevalent in the real world which seems to give them an adrenaline boost. Teenagers generally take these risks because they are vulnerable and prone to seek validation. Also, it makes them feel like they are a part of something that is bigger than them. Unable to recognise the harm it was causing, or scared to share the details of such games, either due to fear of judgment or lack of support, the victims could become easy targets for continuing the process. The victims may have got involved with the game out of curiosity, but find themselves being psychologically manipulated into continuing with the tasks, according to the experts. According to media reports, 22-year-old Philipp Budeikin who is believed to be the creator of the deadly game said in an interview in St Petersburg that his purpose was to cleanse society by provoking people who think they are not worthy of being alive to commit suicide.
In order to understand what their child is going through, parents and schools have a vital role to play. They need to spend more time with kids and keep an eye of their routine, added the psychiatrists. If the teenagers are seemingly lost, lonely and depressed, parents and school managements must take serious and immediate action to get them involved socially in the real world and divert their mind by providing activities or giving them something new to learn.
Experts emphasise on media literacy as a measure to prevent teenagers from harmful content. Peer pressure is another very common motive, especially for those with low self-esteem. Pre-adolescent, from 9 to 12-year olds and adolescents from 13 to 20-year olds are the two age groups who are most susceptible to harming themselves by accepting life-threatening dares be it in the real world or the virtual world.
There is a deep-rooted psychological issue, which entraps children of this age group in the fold of high-risk behaviours. It not only becomes compelling for them to accept dares but also provides them with an imaginative means to give expression to their internalized anger and hatred towards people who cause them deep pain and anguish. Self-harm is a common phenomenon adopted by children who feel rejected and abandoned. They try to make a bold and tacit statement to the world by inflicting self-injury as a false assurance to show that the control still lies with them.
Before things get out of hand it is important to observe warning signals and take immediate action. A child who might be getting addicted to online games like Blue Whale will withdraw from physical and social engagement with friends and family. They will start spending an unreasonable amount of time on the computer and become secretive about their activities in the cyber world. They may show erratic moods and behaviours like irritation, restlessness and anger or may suffer from bouts of low mood without any ostensible reason. Parents should be alert and watch out for these signs. If the symptoms persist they should seek professional help. It is essential for schools to hold workshops for children to educate them about the dangers of cyber space and how to keep themselves safe in the cyber world. From the obvious step of banning such games, the government should formulate a committee of cyber experts and develop programs to educate the youth on the dangers of cyber space and equip them with ways to keep themselves safe in the digital world.
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