On the morning of September 22, Karan Thakur (16) committed suicide by hanging from the ceiling fan of his house in Chandigarh. Apparently, he was a victim of the deadly Blue Whale game. A day after his death, his parents found Blue Whale game-related diagrams purportedly made by the victim in his school notebook - Krithika Krishnamurthy (Twitter: BK_krithika) examines this phenomenon.
The Blue Whale Challenge is said to have originated in Russiain 2013.It encompasses 50 challenges spanning over 50 days, with the final one coercing the 'player' to commit suicide to win the game. A “curator” or an “administrator” instructs participants to perform a host of morbid tasks that inflict self-harm, and mutilation. The title “Blue Whale” refers to how whales sometimes purposefully wash ashore to die.
India ranks no. 1 for Blue Whale-related searches worldwide, says Google Trends. Meghalaya, Manipur and Nagaland ranked on top. Karnataka was ranked 17th in the list.
On the one hand, the game is credited with bringing forth terrible fates for youngsters around the world. On the other side, it has enabled a larger debate on depression among children and open discussions on how to address the same.
As of October 3rd, at least one person in Karnataka, and many across the country were actively seeking out “curators” to enrol themselves into the Blue Whale challenge on Twitter. In the first week of September, alert students and teachers of a prominent Bangalore college helped identify two teenagers who were at the initial stages of the game. News emerged last month that 20 students from Kendriya Vidyalaya in Belagavi cut up their arms simply to boast that they were a participating in this challenge.
Why it draws teens
Experts say it comes out of a need to validate themselves.
“Social media creates a pretentious image--a pseudo-self emerges out of things like this. And this pseudo-self happens because of low-self-esteem,” said Dr Vijayashri, Head of the Department for psychology at Bishop Cotton Women’s Christian College.
She links the low-self-esteem to the manner in which children are brought up in present times.“If from the beginning the child is fed with a lot of negativity and is faced with constant peer pressure, they would be wanting and waiting to prove they're better and different from the rest of the world,” she said.
Two suicide prevention helplines, Spandana and Sahai, said none of the distress calls they have received have even referenced Blue Whale.
While no Blue Whale-related tragedy has been reported in Karnataka, the education department officials and the state police have decided to take no chances as suicides triggered by the game are being reported across the world.
The aforementioned Kendriya Vidyalaya in Belagavi said it sensitised its students about the dangers of such games soon after the incident. Kautilya School in Mysore said it was distributing circulars and advising children to be cautious.
The Bengaluru City Police page on Facebook, which is quite popular in the region, said it is planning to put out posters in its inimitable witty style to sensitise the population on this issue by October midweek.
Lokesh HM, a policeman who manages BCP’s social media activities, said they want the posters to educate, not make the generation curious about the game. He said there are a very few cases associated with this incident, so the police want to be careful about what information is put out.
Similar thoughts were shared by Karnataka's Directorate of Public Instruction, Secondary Education, which has sent circulars to schools to create awareness.
“This is not an epidemic disease like malaria, so it is difficult to monitor. All activities related to this game happen at home 90% of the time. Parents should be made aware of behavioural changes etc,” said Philomena Lobo, director of Public Instructions, Secondary Education.
Meenakshi Ravi, a mother of three kids, concurs. The Blue Whale challenge requires a participant to go through a host of unusual activities, such as carving images of a Blue Whale on the arm, watching horror movies/disturbing video clips all day and being alone all day.
“My instinct was that my children would not be able to do any of that without my knowledge. I would notice,” she said.
How to counter games like these--Experts speak
The first aspect parents should work on, according to psychologist Dr. Vijayshri, is to build emotional resilience in their children by letting them handle problems by themselves.
“I was speaking to a group of parents recently and what they're not doing right is pampering their children, never wanting them to go through problems,” Dr. Vijayshri. “They're vulnerable and eventually depressed because they're not able to handle these situations themselves."
McAfee, a cyber security firm shares a different perspective of tackling this issue. At the heart of games like these is a cyberbully, said McAfee. Because even if the game is being censored by the authorities now, it is rearing its head with new names such as 'A Silent House', 'A Sea of Whales' and 'Wake Me Up at 4:20 AM'.
“First was the dare games, then was risky selfie game, where people started standing on a cliff and taking a selfie or jumping in front of a moving train. Now it’s this,” said Anandita Mishra, of McAfee's Cybermum initiative, which educates parents and academicians on ways to keep teens and tweens safe in the virtual world.
Mishra prescribes a three-step process that adults should teach their children to tackle cyberbullies: Record the conversation, report the account, block the account.“Record, report, block. These are the three key words kids should be taught right from the beginning,” she said.
The other side
The game has kick started conversations between parents and children, and between teachers and students about depression, something that is seen as a healthy sign.
In Mangaluru, a startup called Accolade Tech Solutions has come up with a game called “Rise Up”, modelled on the concept of Blue Whale, but with vastly different outcomes. Some of the tasks in the game include visiting an orphanage and spending time with its inmates, taking up cleaning activities in their surroundings and others that benefit the individual and the society.
World over too there are efforts afoot. Redditor diugo88 came up with a set of “anti-challenges” designed to boost one’s self-esteem. A Pink Whale Challenge or Baleia Rosa was conceived in Brazil, where users are made to do positive and generous acts to bring happiness in their daily life.
Meanwhile, back in Karnataka, Ravi is a happy parent. Thanks to the paranoia surrounding Blue Whale, her relatives no longer insist on gifting mobile phones to her children.
“I’ve always believed that phones are not a gift for children of this age. Nobody talks about buying them a phone now!” said Ravi.
(Krithika Krishnamurthy is a Bangalore based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)