This is the second day in a row I've discovered something suicidally whacky on Twitter. The first was when I found a profile with a UID number on it. Today was crazier. Vivek Namibar, a journalist with India Today with a verified handle on Twitter, posted a series of tweets that can only be described as extremely disturbing. You can check them out here:
I don't know how many of you here have been thinking about the #bluewhalechallenge and talking about it. Here's why we need to.
— Vivek (@ivivek_nambiar) August 3, 2017
The thread describes a "suicide challenge game" that involves the participants taking on various tasks assigned to them by a "curator" on the internet. Seemed complete nonsense, but the handle was a journalist and myth or fact, the tweet had already been shared almost a hundred times (and counting). So I decided to find out more.
Based on the myth that blue whales come to the shore when they want to die, the alleged game encourages participants to do various tasks that are depressing or scary or involve self-harm over a period of 49 days and they are asked to kill themselves on the 50th day. One person was arrested in Russia on charges of encouraging 16 people to commit suicide. Various reports and unsubstantiated numbers of teenagers who have killed themselves because of the game. Reports that it had spread to the UK, reports that French police were warning people. Vivek was warning that the game may have reached India with one death in Mumbai and another in Bangalore that he could not trace.
Given the gravity of the warning, I thought it was important to investigate and at least do some initial straight talking based on what I found.
There is no evidence whatsoever that the Blue Whale Challenge exists
While it is hardly unheard of that depressed teenagers (and even perfectly healthy ones as well as adults) succumb to undesirable influences on the internet, given today's modern world of technology, it is impossible that if an organized game involving interaction over the internet over 50 days existed as a link in a large number of deaths in multiple countries, goes undetected. In the event of a suicide, a person's communications will be examined. If the suicide is suspected to have happened because of influences on the internet, there will be an investigation and at least some kind of concrete information would have come up. Given that several of the tasks reported involve self-harm, including making cuts on the body, carving a whale on various parts of the body and so on, it would have been hard evidence linking various suicides - there is no such evidence. There would be statements from the family about this kind of self-mutilation happening before the suicide. There are no such reports.
The game seems to be some sort of an urban myth that originated in Russia. It is possible that there may have been communications or some interactions involving depressed teenagers who committed suicide and tasks and so on, but there is absolutely no proof that such a game exists. It is just that we tend to notice more what has been brought to our attention, so if such a link is heard about, anything that could remotely fit starts looking like it is true. If I told you a pimple was forming on your nose when we met in person, you'd touch your nose a lot more, exploring its contour to catch that pimple!
The only place where the game seems to have spread is in Brazil with several suicides and suicide attempts allegedly related with the game reported. yet there is are no reports of investigations or arrests.
What is the real danger of the Blue Whale Game?
Well, it is obvious. An urban myth that runs wild and gives people ideas. Ideas that exploit others, or seductive ideas for suicidal people to make one last statement and dramatic exit. Another reporter who tried to find out about the game and wrote about it found that a lot of the comments he received were from teenagers seeking the blue whale game! Needless to say, regardless of whether the game exists, it is providing a source of curiosity and potentially interesting teenagers with suicidal tendencies. He provided a button with his story that said "Start game" and over 9% of people who read his article and its warnings clicked the button anyway. The button led to a page where people were asked why they wanted to play the game and answers ranged from the curious to those really wanting to end their lives.
Sociopaths may see opportunity in the teenagers being interested and seek to harm them by engaging them in what they are seeking and expect. An urban myth that makes suicide sound like some kind of rite of passage may encourage vulnerable minds to lose objectivity and choose self-harm.
Malicious online entities could engage people in the game and provide people with links that infected their computers with malware. After all, a person looking to find a person encouraging them to commit suicide is hardly going to expect a hacker.
All the usual cautions about strangers on the internet apply.
What is the good news?
Is there a good news about the blue whale game? Well, yes. Given that the blue whale game involves tasks to be completed over 50 days, tasks that involve fairly conspicuous behavior, like going to the tops of building and standing on the edge, standing on bridges, cutting their arms, cutting designs onto their limbs - this behavior is very easy to notice and trigger concern. And the good news is that it must go on for almost two months before the suicide. I think it beats a teenager committing suicide on a whim and gives people a chance to notice the problem and gives them a chance to change their minds. 49 days of bizarre behavior has a much better chance of someone intervening than a teenager leaving for college and stepping in front of a train. There is no need for paranoia. It isn't true, and even if it were, it has a better chance of someone noticing it and putting a stop to it than an "unorganized" suicide, so to say.
How dangerous is the blue whale game?
This is tough to say. Given that there is no evidence the game exists, there is no "threat score" one can attach to it. I saw several videos said to be music shared as a part of the challenge and I don't feel suicidal at all. And I am someone who has no problems with suicide and have even been suicidal myself in the past. So if there were some mystical power that would make a viewer want to kill themselves, or at least depressed, I should feel something. Nope. Zero wish to kill me. Anyone who watched and did feel depressed probably was reacting to the title saying that it would make them feel depressed or something. There are no supernatural powers in the video.
That said, obviously, self harm is dangerous and suicide is fatal. So I guess, even if the game doesn't exist if people find the idea appealing and try to copy it, it is obviously dangerous. I imagine too many horror movies in the middle of the night on a sleep deprived brain would fry anyone's sense of well being. Nothing catching up on sleep won't fix, I imagine.
The real danger of such secret, coercive interactions would likely to be predatory behavior with teenagers. Online sexual predators, risk of malicious code being downloaded to computers, personal information breached or willingly given that can make someone vulnerable to blackmail... the sane thing to do here is to keep your computer's security updated and not engage in intimate conversations with strangers.
Some last words about this blue whale suicide game thing - try the pink whale challenge instead
The reporter who did that story on the blue whale game and found the teenagers interested created an alternative pink whale challenge. Not going to link to it. If you really landed here looking for something, it will satisfy your need to search for it and find it and you can play it.
With or without the blue whale game, teenage depression and suicides are growing. There is a need to be supportive of vulnerable people and to provide a compassionate listening ear. If you find anyone around you being unusually depressed, engaging in self-harm, withdrawing from the world, do take a moment to check on them, and if necessary, speak with their friends and/or families and see that they receive any attention needed.
If you find yourself interested in suicide, seek help. More importantly, seek information. When emotions are low, it is harder to be convinced that things aren't as bad as we perceive them. Hard facts devoid of positive or negative emotion can serve as an anchor for sanity and allow you to gain a sense of perspective. Contact suicide helplines (search for them). Talk about it with friends you trust to listen to you. Make an abrupt change in life. Quit an environment making you unhappy, try something altogether different. It is a sort of metaphorical rebirth, you know? The giving up of an old unsatisfying life and the trying out of something that appeals more. I have done that often in life. Change careers, live in a different place, break up or fall in love, whatever.
Remember, thoughts of death may be common, acting on it is not. There is no need to fear. It is better to empower yourself with information and pragmatic action. If you are happy, if you care for yourself and seek help when you feel low, you aren't going to want to die, and no game can make you want to do it. That is just the internet being what it is.
Update: After publishing this post, it has come to my attention that the one Mumbai boy's suicide is behind this speculation of the Blue Whale challenge. This is in spite of the police not finding any history of altered behavior in the boy or signs of self mutilation - both of which would have been present if this were a case of the alleged "Blue whale challenge". Regardless, an incredibly uncritical media has widely reported the death as a potential Blue Whale game suicide, Devendra Fadnavis has apparently promised an inquiry saying that if it is an online game, it can easily be blocked (compounding gullibility with rank ignorance of the internet). And to top everything, this was brought up in the Parliament and the government may probably be preparing to issue some kind of a warning on the issue. While they are at it, they should also warn people against trusting Lord Voldemort. The complete gullibility of the media and the state and center governments is staggering. This is what you get by promoting stupidification and superstition. Critical thinking goes for a toss.
Viral trends of this sort spread with panic and reach the fertile ground of the minds of those discontented with life who find them appealing. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, the media and the Parliament ought to show restraint instead of introducing Indian youth to such ideas made all the more melodramatic for the attention they get. There are countless suicides in India on a daily basis. While this one is very sad as well, there is no need to go overboard about it and jump to conclusions that have no evidence in the reported facts of the case.
Update 2: More info on Snopes