You may have seen the posts making the rounds on Facebook noting that an Alabama school district is warning parents about a disturbing game. Many of the posts claim the challenge is to blame for the suicides of 130 Russian teenagers. Since the district linked to articles on several websites that tend to sensationalize the facts, one is left to wonder if it’s all urban legend or a true threat.
The Blue Whale Challenge sounds like something straight from a horror movie. A sinister villain blackmails your child into harming themselves with the threat of physical violence to family members. Allegedly, administrators find vulnerable kids who post about suicide and self-harm through social media and specific hashtags. Then, administrators challenge those users to complete 50 days of tasks. Some of the rumored challenges include listening to certain songs, standing on the edges of rooftops and cutting themselves. The final challenge supposedly demands the player to commit suicide.
Fact checker, Snopes, says the game is named after the way whales sometimes beach themselves and then die. It also describes how a Russian website posted a story about the suicides of 130 teenagers there who belonged to the same death group on Russia’s version of Facebook. But Radio Free Europe reports investigators cannot definitively link a single death in Russia to the Blue Whale Challenge.
The Baldwin County Public School System in Alabama that warned its parents of the game has no evidence that anyone in its schools is playing. Another school district in Denver also sent out a warning (at the request of one school), again, with no evidence that anyone is participating. It’s precautionary, officials there say.
So are we freaking everybody out about a threat that doesn’t even exist? Not quite.
Whether the Blue Whale Challenge has actually caused any deaths, the fact is that people are searching out this so-called game on social media. When you type in the hashtag on Instagram, the following warning pops up, “Can we help? Posts with words or tags you're searching for often encourage behavior that can cause harm and even lead to death. If you’re going through something difficult, we’d like to help.” It then gives you the option to "Get Support" and allows you to talk to a friend, contact a helpline or get tips. Nicely done, Instagram. But, it also gives users the option to "See Posts Anyway."
If users click on that, it takes you to all the posts where people have used the hashtag #bluewhalechallenge. These include quite a few photos of self-mutilation, sometimes involving the shape of a whale. Some of the posts are very disturbing with a lot of blood. It's definitely nothing parents would want their children to see. You’ll find similar posts on Facebook, with no warning. You’ll also find them on Twitter, with the added horror of many users asking game administrators to find them, saying they are "ready to play."
There are countless groups on Facebook focusing on self-harm and suicide. Granted, many of them claim to help people struggling with those issues. But these groups can actually cause more harm than good. Stephen Palmer is the director of the Coaching Psychology Unit at City University in London. He tells The Tab (a university news network) that since professionals are most often not leading these groups, the interactions can have severe and lasting consequences.
The Blue Whale Challenge (whether it’s real or not) is yet another reason parents should be monitoring what children are doing and with whom they’re communicating online. More importantly, parents should always keep an open dialogue going with their children, so that if kids are having depressive, self-harm or suicidal thoughts, they will feel comfortable talking about it.
Anyone who is a parent knows, that while we have good intentions, it’s not always as easy as it sounds to have that type of relationship. Safe Smart Social reminds parents that “loving” your child means taking actions that may make your child not “like” you at times. That may include monitoring your kids’ online activity on occasion.
Finally, if your children have searched out the Blue Whale hashtag, talk with them about it and possibly alert their school. Other parents will want to know if this ugly game has reared its head in your area.
When I asked the FBI if the Blue Whale Challenge was on its radar, a spokesperson reiterated the need to share information, saying "While the FBI does not comment on specific apps, we want to make users and parents aware of the potential risks and vulnerabilities that online and social media mechanisms can pose. We encourage users to be vigilant and to report any suspicious activity to law enforcement.”
We must report criminal things we see online, and we must support those who struggle.
If you or someone you know is wrestling with thoughts of suicide, here are two good ways to take the first step toward help: Text “START” to 74174 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline #800-273-8255.
Amy Iverson is a graduate of the University of Utah. She has worked as a broadcast journalist in Dallas, Seattle, Italy and Salt Lake City. Amy, her husband, and three kids live in Summit County, Utah. Contact Amy on Facebook.com/theamyiverson