Recent reports of child and teen suicides have flooded the news recently. Too often social media and cyberbullying plays a role. The Blue Whale Challenge is the latest fad kids are talking about. Should parents worry?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention there has been a recent spike in child and teen suicides. The rate for 10 to 14 year-olds doubled between 2007-2014. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among kids aged 10 to 14 and second among persons aged 15 to 34. Firearms is the most commonly used method for males, and poisoning is the most commonly used method for females. Because kids immerse themselves with their screens on average of 10 hours a day, there is often little escape from online peer pressures and conflict. Experts consider social media and Internet access to be major contributors to risk. The most recent sinister social media game tied to suicidal gestures is the Blue Whale Challenge.
What is The Blue Whale Challenge?
The Blue Whale Challenge is a game shared on social media that encourages players to complete a series of 50 challenges. Players are required to prove they are accomplishing these challenges by Skyping or instant messaging descriptions, images, and videos to a “whale,” who is typically an older person manipulating the younger subject. There is also a version where a Blue Whale Online Forum does the challenging. The name is reported to have come from the song Burn by the Russian rock band Lumen.
Blue whale challenges typically include a series of tasks with increasing risk that require subjects to “prove” obedience to the whale. These include various self-mutilation tasks, like poking, scratching, cutting, and carving words into one’s body, overcoming a fear, like climbing a crane or standing on a bridge, watching horror movies, and ultimately killing oneself on video. Gradual obedience training with social isolation and sleep deprivation gradually wears down a victim’s resolve and increases dependency. This type of psychological manipulation is a typical grooming technique used by online predators.
Descriptions of this challenge have been shared on Reddit and are rumored to have originated in Russia. A CNN article reported that 21 year-old Philip Budeikin was arrested in November 2016 with the charge “incitement of suicide” for encouraging 16 victims to kill themselves, and a 26 year-old postman was also detained by Russian authorities. An article by SkyNews stated, “Civil society groups in Russia believe that at least 130 young people have taken their lives while playing Blue Whale, while reports of incidents and fatalities in places such as Ukraine, Estonia, Kenya, Brazil and Argentina have also surfaced in recent months.”
Although it is unclear how pervasive this challenge is in the United States, at least two U.S. families have come forward to the media stating that it lead to the suicides of their children. Fifteen year-old Jorge Gonzalez of San Antonio was found hanging in his closet with his cell phone propped up to record. His parents told news media he had sent videos of challenges to friends after following the directives of a Blue Whale social media group. The parents of a sixteen year-old Georgia girl reported that their daughter killed herself, leaving behind paintings of blue whales, letters in Russian, and several clues linking her to this challenge. One clue was a sketch of 17 year-old Rina Palenkova, who killed herself in Russia in November 2015 and became an icon among online suicide fan communities.
What I have seen in clinical practice
So far I’ve not heard of the Blue Whale Challenge other than when my teenage son brought it up after seeing a cautionary video from famous YouTube star, Shane Dawson. However, I have treated many people with suicidal ideation since I started practice in the mid-1990s. My personal experience is that kids are speaking of suicidal ideation at younger ages and with higher prevalence. They often discuss suicide among strangers and peers online. Although it is argued that online communities provide support when kids are isolated or distressed, habitual discussion may also desensitize kids, causing them to lose sight that suicidal threats are very serious and devastating to those they love. For some, habitual discussion places them in a hopeless, one-solution mind space, distracting them from more productive and uplifting activities and relationships. Furthermore, comments like “Go die” or “Go drink bleach,” are too often delivered online with little regard to the potential consequences.
What can parents do to keep their kids safe?
Teach your kids the vocabulary necessary to talk about feelings while they’re young, gradually teaching more advanced problem solving strategies over time.
Rather than shrinking away from your kids when they are frustrated, sad, or angry, lean in and let them know you understand and consider their emotional well being your highest priority. If you see evidence that your child is being bullied, address the problem assertively with your child and seek support from school administrators and law enforcement. “Just ignore it” is not a reasonable solution.
Don’t allow your kids to flippantly make threats about hurting themselves.
Sometimes kids threaten to hurt themselves in order to express their pain and cry for help. Other times these threats are intended to express anger and manipulate others. Take any type of threat seriously and require a family discussion about every incident. You may want to let things calm down before you engage in the discussion, but don’t let a comment go unaddressed. Make sure your children understand that a consequence of such a threat is that they will have to talk it through to solution. If they won’t cooperate with you, offer adult alternatives like a trusted family member or a mental health professional.
Be alert for signs of emotional distress offline and online.
Mood and anxiety disorders and substance abuse often contribute to suicidality. Be on the lookout for depressed or agitated mood, an inability to have fun, a drop in initiative, sleeping often during the day, a change of appetite, low energy, a drastic change in behavior, social isolation, or expressions of inappropriate guilt or hopelessness. A drastic change in appearance, pulling away from friends, or giving away favorite items may also signal your child is in trouble.
If your child loses a friend or family member to suicide, be aware that he or she may be at increased risk. Keep in mind that not every suicidal individual is depressed and not every depressed individual is suicidal. Statistics show that only half of those who have killed themselves demonstrated depressive symptoms. Keep an eye out for hashtags that demonstrate dangerous themes on your child’s social media activity, like #bluewhalechallenge, #curatorfindme, or #sue.
If you have concern that your child is engaging in self-harm or has suicidal ideation, ask about it directly.
Parents often worry that mentioning suicide first may give their child ideas. But most people who attempt suicide show signs before the attempt. Asking directly is the best way to elicit critical information that can lead to prevention.
Be direct but avoid frequent, fearful questioning or shaming. Instead focus on validation, understanding, and problem solving. Suicide is often a consequence of feeling so hopeless the subject is unable to see a way to resolve their pain. Don’t stop at investigation and validation; help your child generate solutions. Praise positivity and resilience while discouraging blind obedience. Take every opportunity to authentically express your love and admiration for your child’s efforts, no matter how disappointing the ultimate performance. They need us to reveal our love for them in order to recognize that they are worthy of love just for being them.
Ensure that potentially lethal means are not available.
Lock firearms, razor blades, poisons, and dangerous medications in a safe, particularly if any family members have demonstrated suicidal ideation before.
Let go of your stigma toward mental illness and treatment.
Life is more difficult for some more than others, but few of us escape this life without hard times. Compassion is key. If your child is suffering, seek an expert who can help. Kids and teens will often accept the influence of other adults in a different way than they do with their parents. Don’t go it alone.
If you or someone you know expresses suicidal ideation, reach out to local mental health resources or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. An online chat is also available, or you can text HOME to the National Suicide Hotline at 741741.
Worried about self harm and cutting? Check out my GetKidsInternetSafe article What Parents Need to Know About America’s Cutting Epidemic.
I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.
Onward to More Awesome Parenting,
Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty