It sounds like something from a dystopian cyber nightmare; morbid online games or death cults that propel children and young teens towards self-harm and in some cases suicide.

Desperate and sinister

Given the ubiquity of the online world these groups are deeply dangerous. And they do exist. Teens and children can come across them at a vulnerable time in their lives when they haven’t learnt to navigate the ebbs and flows of life.
Group members don’t hold out the hand of hope or encourage people to work through the oppression of depression or seek help, rather they advocate ending everything.

Blue Whale

The Blue Whale challenge is perhaps one of the most infamous and relatively recent; it sets a series of increasingly disturbing challenges that participants must complete:
  • The game extends over 50 days
  • A series of tasks are assigned during this period by the game’s administrator
  • Tasks have so far ranged from climbing a crane to acts of self-mutilation and waking at 4.20am to carry out a task
  • Every time a task is accomplished photographic or video evidence must be produced and sent to the game’s administrator
  • The aim of the game is to manipulate mood and feelings ultimately culminating in the final act which is to commit suicide in order to win the game
The game is carried out between the participant and the administrator.

Scepticism

The game has received significant media attention but sceptics claims there is very little reliable evidence available for either the game's existence or its role in any of several well publicised child and teenage suicides.
According to a Novaya Gazeta report, the Russian Public Internet-Technology Centre tracked 4,000 uses of the game hashtags on January 20, 2017 alone.
These Russian language hashtags include:
  • blue whale
  • sea of whales
  • I’m in the game
  • Wake me at 4:20
  • F58
Blue Whale is said to have originated on VKontakte the largest European online social media and social networking service.
F58 (and F57) relate to an on online ‘death’ group on VKontakte where the game is said to have appeared among its members.

Investigating

A Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reporter created a fake profile of a 15 year old girl on the popular Russian social media site VKontakte to see if there was any truth in the claims about the game.
  • The first task assigned to the reporter was to scratch the symbol ‘F58 into her arm.
  • A photo shopped image was sent, but the administrator stopped responding.
  • The reporter then found another game administrator but the administrators account was blocked before the task could be sent

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Video evidence

There are some harrowing and disturbing video clips that have been posted online showing young teens mutilating themselves, deep cuts in the wrist with blood slowly seeping out into a bathtub, and jumping off buildings to their death.
The videos look genuine, are deeply distressing, and according to those who posted them related to the Blue Whale challenge.
In February this year there have been multiple tweets with the #F57 hashtag many of which were people claiming to be searching for game administrators, while a few claimed to be administrators.
On Facebook, several groups were reportedly started and shut down for being related to the Blue Whale Game.

Why ‘Blue Whale?’

Blue Whale is a reference to the apparent suicide of whales that beach themselves on land. The game is also known as:
  • A quiet house/A silent house
  • A sea/A bunch of wales
  • Wake me up at 4.20 am

Moral panic?

It’s difficult to establish whether Blue Whale exists as a definite game or whether it’s a trend of sorts that has caught on among some young teens and like a self-fulfilling prophecy has gained a life of its own.
Unsurprisingly it has gained a lot of media attention but is it no more than a moral panic?  Certainly, new technologies and games can create a negative moral reaction:
  • In the pre-Internet era of the 1980s, the popular role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons prompted a mass moral panic amid rumours of murders, suicide, and satanic rituals.
Young teens in Russia who have engaged in the Blue Whale challenge described typical tasks as drawing a whale on their body or paper, cutting a vein, or carving a whale or other symbol on their arm.  Others said the administrators weren’t real and were posing as genuine to extract money from them.

Beyond question

However, what is beyond question is that some children and teens are vulnerable to suicide and death groups:
  • According to some researchers there are about 1,500 social networking groups globally dedicated to promoting suicide. These groups are reported to have adults and children working together.

Psychology

These groups are said to understand psychology, they know how to insult and degrade by destroying an impressionable teenager’s mind and fragile self-esteem.
  • It is common for teenage girls to be convinced they are fat
  • Teenage boys are made to believe they are unwanted losers
  • If the victim believes the insults they reach a depressed state
  • The administrator begins telling them how much better everything will be once they take their own lives
  • Victims are told how their problems will no longer exist and they will finally truly be free.

Arrests

On November 14, 2016, police outside of Moscow arrested 21-year-old Filipp Budeikin on suspicion of being an organizer of the Blue Whale challenge.
  • Media reports said at the time that 10 other people from various regions were detained around the same time, but all of them were questioned only as witnesses" and released.
  • Authorities said Budeikin was suspected of complicity in 15 suicides.
  • In several reports in the Spanish speaking press it was claimed that Budeikin said he invented the game and the aim was to ‘clean’ society by pushing to suicide those who had no value.
  • Budeikin's lawyer, Rostislav Gubenko, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that only one case was still under investigation and Budeikin was held because of a newspaper article, a bit of a scandal and pressure to do something, adding there is no evidence.

What can parents do?

If a child is sucked into a morbid game he or she is not immediately asked to commit suicide. But the tasks are such that they drive children into a state of helplessness and create an oppressive atmosphere. The children are already like to have some particular problem and these tasks can make their situation worse and increase the risk of self-harm.
Sometimes it’s hard to understand what a teenager is going through; they can keep a lot in and hidden from their parents. But clearly those likely to be influenced by Blue Whale will be feeling, depressed, isolated or bullied.
As a parent there are several things that can be done. As teenagers retreat into their rooms it’s important to keep the lines of communication open:
  • Speak to them about the Blue Whale Game and cyber-mobbing which is essentially a form or cyber-cruelty that involves a group sharing the same malicious intent usually directed against a single individual – let them know that you’re aware of these cyber trends and you are concerned.
  • Limit the time that is spent on computers whether its mobile phones, tablets or laptops and explain why this is important, for instance, as compelling as the cyber world is spending time with friends is far more engaging.
  • Consider using security software with parental controls. This allows you to block malicious content put search filters in place, limit your kids’ time online, monitor their activity and even block certain applications. It helps keep them safe from cyber bullying and stops them being exposed to inappropriate content.
  • Some software also includes social media protection. This is great tool for discretely monitoring and protecting youngsters. You can set alerts for inappropriate messages by flagging up key words in areas such as sexting, profanities, sex-related content, violence, abuse, cyberbullying and drugs and drinking. When inappropriate content is discovered you receive alerts. It also monitors pictures and social media posts for keywords and unsafe web site links.
  • Explain to the youngsters that it’s perfectly ok to say no. This may be difficult for them given that friends and peer groups are one of the most important things for teens. Explain to them that they don’t have to do anything they don’t feel comfortable with and rather than impose a blanket ban, suggest alternatives such as spending time with a different group of friends.
  • And last but certainly not least accept that the things that you hear about happening to children online, such as bullying and abuse, doesn’t just involve other children. It’s not always someone else’s child. In the digital world parents need to keep their eyes open to the reality of their children’s online lives which often require just as much care and attention as their real world lives.

BullGuard has released a valuable guide to protecting children online. It’s packed with practical tips, the results of a parents’ survey, further references and simple common sense advice. In a seemingly complex area it’s a beacon of simple and sound advice that will help you keep your kids safe online.