BENGALURU: In the last few, unless you lived under a rock, it would’ve been hard not to come across the words ‘Blue Whale Challenge’ glaring at you from TV sets, the morning newspaper, or every second post on social media.
The mysterious game, which is suspected to have claimed three lives in India, involves 50 ‘tasks’ such as cutting, watching disturbing videos late at night and culminating with suicide via jumping off a building. It originated in Moscow and has since spread across countries. The Blue Whale has apparently claimed the lives of more than a hundred teens across the world, but mental health experts say that we are having the wrong discussion. We should be talking about the mental health of teenagers, not the ills of social media or of such a game.
There really is no way to trace deaths of these young adults to the game, says Parth Kalia, a mental health expert who has researched on the Blue Whale Challenge. However, the frenzy has led to government-level intervention, the Kerala and Maharashtra governments calling for a ban on the game, and more recently, the Centre writing a letter to Internet biggies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google to take down any links to this “deadly game”. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights had also written to the Electronics and Information Technology Ministry to catch those involved in the spreading of the game.
‘We are having the wrong dialogue’
“There is a lot of media attention on this issue, and it’s not necessary that Blue Whale is the problem here. The truth is that there are pre-existing mental health issues such as suicidal tendencies and depression among children who are said to have attempted the challenge, and that is what the focus should be on,” says Parth.
He adds that we must take into account there is something of a ‘suicide contagion’ phenomenon at play here, wherein people are influenced by their peers, families and even the media and pop culture. For example, suicides like that of Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington and Audioslave vocalist Chris Cornell, can lead to copycat tendencies among those who look up to them, says Parth.
He adds India has always rated high on the world map when it comes to teenage suicides, but we’re starting to see and focus on it now because the matter is coming to light in this “particularly gruesome way.” He says that we are having the wrong dialogue - talking about the harmful effects of being on social media isn’t as much the problem as is recognising signs of mental health issues among our children.
What draws teens to games like these?
Deepa Pai, a city-based integrative therapist who works primarily with adolescents, says that children who have been put down or abused by their families or peers are most likely to fall prey to something like the Blue Whale Challenge, as they feel like they have something to prove to the world. “Kids who are put down for all the wrong reasons could take this on as a challenge to prove that they are capable to doing things, that they aren’t meek or weak. Obviously, this backfires since the end result is drastic, but even going through these tedious challenges is way to show that one has courage,” she says.
Interestingly, Parth points out that there is a revenge aspect to challenges like the Blue Whale Challenge, wherein teens feel the need to show others how they’ve been treated wrongly. Citing the example of the popular and controversial TV series 13 Reasons Why, which he says is driven by the notions of taking ones life as revenge, can be seen as glorifying suicide.
Deepa says that young adults aren’t playing these games for the thrill of it or to be ‘cool’. She says something like the Blue Whale Challenge is the final step one would take in order to be heard.
‘Interpersonal relationships top list of adolescent issues’
Deepa says, “Most of the children I deal with say that they are struggling with inter-personal relationships and how to maintain them - be it at home or at school. Even on social media, kids feel the tendency to compare their lives with others, and feel inferior when they aren’t able to keep up with certain fads or trends - this is especially true for kids from middle-income families.” Parth adds, “The generation gap between parents and children has reduced the amount of interaction between the two, which is definitely stressful as children don’t see their parents as people they can talk to, this resulting in an increased dependence or search for approval on social media platforms.”
Then there are the usual suspects -- societal expectations to excel in academics and find a career, and stress of coming of age and trying to fit in.
Challenge, targetted invites attract teens
Blue Whale or social-media dares work because of various elements. We ask an expert who designs social-media campaigns, Aditya Narayanan, Partner at Cryptic Intel, what is the formula that clicks. He estimates the most vulnerable age group to be between 13 and 23 years.
There is the design of the game, where players have to ‘earn’ their entry into the next level. “Teenagers try out games, which are meant for those who are 18 and above, and they get addicted. They don’t stop unless they have finished every level and scored all the ‘power-ups’. Blue Whale too starts with simple quests to get adolescents excited and then it moves into more serious levels, challenging their ego to finish the game, even if it means ending their life,”he says.
Challenges involved in this game make it addictive. “There is competition and ranking, and it drives players to top the game,” he says. “Once they get into this, there is no coming back to a level where they can understand the difference between reality and the virtual world,” he says.
These games appeal to their want to be a hero. “Everyone in this age wants to do something never done before,” says Aditya, “this is so that they can be popular among their peers.” Once there is peer-group pressure, they worry that the rest are watching them and they don’t want to be the laughing stock.
Players are chosen by the ‘curators’, by their degree of vulnerability. “Not everyone is on their mailing list,” says Aditya. “The host researches on vulnerable victims, their mentality, their mental status, their zeal to always accept hidden challenges and are borderline depressed. This is done very secretively and carefully done so that they land a victim who is already a target. In one of the interviews, Philipp Budeikin (who allegedly claims to be the founder of the game) mentioned that there were mentors for each country and they search for victims who are mentally weak and exhausted and they track progress made by these victims and when they back out, they are brainwashed to commit suicide and sometimes even threatened.” Adolescents lack an understanding of privacy settings on social media, which is used by such groups.