Why we can't ignore the threat of Blue Whale Challenge

The dangerous game may have claimed yet another life.

 |   Long-form |   17-08-2017
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The Blue Whale Challenge may or may not have led to the suicide of the Mumbai teenager who jumped off a building on July 29, but it did educate Indians about the existence of the dangerous phenomenon and its morbid potential.

Sadly enough, Indians still have a lot of misconceptions and false ideas about the “game”. Sadder still, the “game” may have claimed yet another life.

A death in Kerala

According to reports, Manoj C Manu, a 16-year-old boy from Perumkulam in Kerala's Thiruvananthapuram, hanged himself on July 26. Kerala Police had registered a case of unnatural death then. On August 14, however, the Class 11 student's mother informed police that she suspects her son committed suicide to complete the Blue Whale Challenge.

Anu, Manoj’s mother, said, had spoken to her about the Blue Whale Challenge nine months ago – well before there was any mainstream media coverage about it in India. In an interview with Malayala Manorama, she said that she had initially laughed it off, but when Manoj told her that to "play" it, the players should complete different tasks and finally kill oneself, kill someone else, or turn into a lunatic, she made him promise that he won't attempt it.

bw_081717061741.jpgPhoto: Facebook

Manoj’s behaviour, despite the promise to his mother, slowly began to change. The boy, who would never travel alone, would now set out to see the beach all by himself. He would stay awake all night and go to sleep at five in the morning. He would frequent cemeteries and plunge into rivers despite not knowing how to swim. He even made his friend carve three alphabets on his hand.

"He started behaving strangely since last November. First he went to a beach all alone. He lied to us that he was going for some programme with his friends but went to the beach alone. In January, I saw three alphabets carved on his hand - A, B and I. His friend was scared to do it, but Manoj forced him to," Anu told Malayala Manorama.

"He asked me if I will be if he dies and if I'd recover from the grief. I told him my two children are like me eyes, I will be sad if I lose them," said Anu, to which Manoj, she claims, replied, "You will still have my sister even if I am gone. Give her my share of love."

Manoj's uncle told India Today that he too noticed the drastic changes in his behaviour over the past two months. Vilappilshala SI, who is in charge of the case, told India Today that Anu gave the new statement – the one about the Blue Whale Challenge – on August 14.

What is the Blue Whale Challenge?

The Blue Whale Challenge is a game, believed to have originated in Russia, that incites teenagers into committing suicide through a series of tasks and quests.

According to a report on Heavy, the challenge began by way of a YouTube video in which an anonymous instructor begins giving assignments. In total, there are 50 assignments that become increasingly more serious over time. The tasks include things like self-harm and when the participant reaches the 50th task, they are told to kill themselves. 

According to an investigative piece by Novaya Gazeta in May 2016, “death groups” have existed on VKontakte (a Russian social media site that is more popular than Facebook in the country), that incited teens into committing suicide. According to the report, there were about 130 reported adolescent suicides in Russia between November 2015 and April 2016, and a majority of these children who took their lives were part of the same social media death groups. 

blue-whale_081717061242.jpgPhoto: Twitter

Over a course of 50 days, the game’s moderator reaches out to kids via various social media channels like Instagram, SnapChat, YouTube, instant messages etc, and guides them through the tasks. The anonymous administrator assigns kids various “self-harm” tasks that are innocuous in the beginning like watching a scary movie, but slowly grows increasingly dangerous like cutting oneself. On the 50th day, the participant is supposed to commit suicide.

Every task is supposed to be documented by the player and sent to the moderator or administrator, who is also known as the “whale”. 

But was this death cause by the Blue Whale Challenge?

According to a report in The News Minute, the Kerala police said that there was no confirmation that anybody in the state had been using the game. During a press conference on August 16, Thiruvananthapuram range IG Manoj Abraham said that although two suspected cases have surfaced, the police have not been able to officially confirm that either of the deaths was related to the game.

Director General of Police (DGP) Loknath Behera too, told media that there was “no official confirmation that anybody in Kerala has downloaded or been part of the game that has reportedly led to the suicide of at least two teenagers in the country.” Additionally, Behera assured that there was no need for people to panic and that the police are working on strengthening their awareness programmes, in order to to deal with the situations like these.

Despite what Manoj’s mother may claim, there is, of course, the possibility that this suicide had nothing to do with the Blue Whale Challenge. In fact, it would not be the first time the media jumped the gun on a case like this.

In the case of the Mumbai teen, the media reports that initially suggested the death being linked to the challenge may be false. According to a friend of the victim’s family, the possibility of his suicide being linked to the Blue Whale challenge is unlikely. "The family had no idea about the challenge. They found out about it in the news once this story got picked up,” she said.

She added that the victim was not active on social media at all – which is strange when you consider that social media is the primary medium for teens to get in touch with the “whales”. She averred that the idea of this suicide being related to the Blue Whale Challenge was fed to the police by a neighbour for “no rhyme or reason”.

In fact, according to an Indian Express report, Mumbai police’s investigation into the suicide had so far revealed no evidence that it was a result of the Blue Whale Challenge.

Blue Whale or not, one can’t be too careful

Suicide cults like the Blue Whale Challenge are a legitimate threat. With over hundreds of cases worldwide, it’s not a thing to be taken lightly. And the one’s susceptible to it, are always the ones who are emotionally vulnerable and socially marginalised.

This "game", according to PsychCentral report, is most likely the creation of someone who is a psychopath or sociopath, or has significant tendencies of psychopathy, and it's not so much a game as it is a "control and manipulation scheme directed towards vulnerable people who have serious thoughts of suicide, loneliness, and death".

The creator of the game taps into the emotional vulnerability and, through the tasks, attains total control over their minds. The true test of the creator’s control is to make them take the ultimate test – killing themselves. 

Dr Sapna Zarwal, a Delhi-based child psychologist, speaking to the Indian Express identified two types of children who are likely to fall prey to such games: "It is either those who are adventure-prone and dare to do anything, or the shy ones, the back-benchers, who tend to play these game. Those who are generally teased as "losers", get a sense of vindication by playing these games."

Anu, Manoj’s mother said to The News Minute, “I lost my precious son. Nothing is going to bring him back to me. My friend told me not to be selfish about it and to talk about it.”

Manoj may or may not be the victim of this manipulative game, but many can be. But how can one prevent it? Surveillance is not an option. Parents will most likely fail to keep an eye on their children 24x7 – mostly because it is impossible. There is no way to monitor the social media activities of a brooding teenager given the sheer number of avenues out there. Perhaps the best way to ensure that more children don’t fall prey to this vicious challenge is to have better dialogue.

Children, who may seem depressed or lost, need to be treated with caution by their parents and peers. No one can tell what might trigger suicidal behaviour. Instead, what everyone can do, to ensure the mental well-being of at-risk teens is to encourage them to speak more about their emotions and feelings.

The parents themselves need to keep an open mind about what they might have to say. And more importantly, and this cannot be stressed enough, parents need to open up to the idea of sending their children for therapy or at least consulting a psychiatrist.

Indians, sadly, don't consider mental illness as a real disease. And that has to change.

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