The four-year old, sinister, online game called the Blue Whale Challenge, which presents players with a list of 50 tasks to be performed ending with the player jumping off a building, has been in the news of late.
The suicide of a 14-year old in Mumbai triggered the debate about the game, and since then, more teenagers are reported to have been playing this game. Recently, a 13-year old teen was stopped from jumping off a building in Indore by his friends. A class 10 student from West Midnapore allegedly committed suicide last week and is suspected to be the latest casualty of this lethal game.
These reports prompted Union Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi to write a letter to the Home Minister and IT Minister asking for the game to be removed from social media sites.
Whether there is a connection between these incidents and the Blue Whale Challenge is still a matter of debate.
While schools and parents are still trying to wrap their heads around this phenomenon, government bodies are doing what they are known to do best — calling for a ban of the online game.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on Saturday urged the Centre to take immediate steps to ban the online Blue Whale Challenge game. “In view of the threat which is already at our doorstep, I would request that immediate action may be initiated to ban this game all over India so that we can save precious lives,” Vijayan said in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a copy of which was released to the media in Thiruvananthapuram.
The government of Maharashtra is also contemplating a ban on the game. It is also planning to seek the help of the Centre in banning the game and containing its spread.
The apex body for child rights, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), has also written to the ministry of electronics and information technology thrice on the matter since May asking it to identify violators, according to a ministry spokesperson.
How do you ban a challenge?
While it’s clear that something must be done to curb the spread of this game, the idea of ‘banning’ it seems a bit absurd. For starters, the Blue Whale Challenge isn’t an app or a service which you download or subscribe to. It is a list of 50 tasks which you perform. After each task, you share the updates on social media using hashtags such as #curatorfindme, #BlueWhaleChallenge, among others. Curators or admins for the game who monitor these hashtags then get in touch with these players through social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat or WhatsApp. They then assign tasks to the respective players. These curators and admins mask themselves using the internet. It’s virtually impossible to find them, and they could be anyone.
The players have to provide proof in the form of photos or videos of the tasks they have performed. Over time, the curators get personal details from the players or access to private content which can be used to blackmail them, in case, say, a task isn’t completed.
According to a report in The Economic Times, even the Russian social media site VKontakte where the game seems to have originated from, has been banning any mention of the aforementioned hashtags. Fact-checking website Snopes has also called the claim that the Blue Whale Challenge caused 130 deaths in Russia an unproven fact.
In such a scenario, it is appalling to see senior politicians making a statement such as ‘over 2,000 children have been downloading this game in Kerala’. The only thing it brings to the fore is the lack of understanding of how the internet works.
“If governments think that the Blue Whale Challenge is the only danger around, they are horribly mistaken! There are so many others and something or the other keeps popping up. How many can the government track and how many will they ban? For teenagers, trying something that is banned definitely ups the thrill-level and further feeds on their curiosity,” says Mumbai-based counselor and psychotherapist, Divya Srivastava.
The Information and Broadcasting Ministry (IB) is also reported to be in talks with the Ministry of Law and Justice to have this game banned. They are expected to penalise websites which seem to be causing the spread of the game.
Unless social media entities where the relevant hashtags associated with the Blue Whale Challenge get in on the act, there isn’t much anyone can do to stop the spread of the game, and even that might not be of any use. By banning the respective hashtags from social media sites, it will be difficult for so called curators to find vulnerable victims.
I did a quick search on Facebook and Twitter of the two hashtags #bluewhalechallenge and #curatorfindme. Facebook throws up a ‘Suicide and self harm’ prevention resources link as the first result. On Twitter, you just see tweets of people either playing the game or those who want to spread awareness about it. Either way, the hashtags are visible on both the platforms.
While this isn’t a guarantee that the game will stop spreading, far from it, these steps might at least diminish the impact of the game a touch.
The focus needs to change
It’s not really about the game to begin with. An average person will not commit suicide just because a game asked them to.
According to Srivastava, the solution lies in focussing on triggers that lead to teenagers to fall prey to such games. “Governments can focus on devising education policies such as taking stricter actions against bullying, launching programs educating teenagers on cyber safety and security, and ensuring that adolescents have access to quality mental health professionals that they can approach when they are going through a low phase in their lives.”
Mumbai-based psychiatrist Harish Shetty is of the view that the government should focus on coming up with a National Suicide Prevention Policy. “The root causes, which include the feeling of alienation felt by the children, need to be addressed. Instances of depression among teenagers are increasing. Even in this game, there are 50 steps involving harming oneself. Adults should immediately be alert to any signs of self-harm,” says Shetty.
Parents need to ensure gadget hygiene
Gadget hygiene, just like physical hygiene, is an issue that needs to be taken very seriously by families, says Shetty. “Parents should ensure that gadgets are used in their presence as far as possible, should be used for a short duration and they’ve to ensure that kids sleep early and are not whiling away their time in front of a screen,” says Shetty. He also suggests that parents should try and limit their usage of gadgets when children are around.
“Parents need to become more aware. Supervision is necessary – I am not suggesting they have to keep track of every tweet their child sends or every Story or status that is shared, but they need to invest more time and emotional energy than they are currently. Parents cannot just wake up one day due to scares like the Blue Whale Challenge and decide that from that day onwards, they shall become their child’s best friend. It does not work like that,” says Srivastava.
It’s also pertinent to segregate the ‘friend’ and ‘parent’ part when you are trying to be friends with your child says Srivastava. “Punishing or reprimanding a child for something he or she said or did because he/she decided to trust you, will guarantee that your teenager is not going to share anything with you again,” she says.
How the government will go about banning the game is still a matter that’s open to debate. Although the pressure to do that is mounting nonetheless. In the past, we have seen how the concept of banning something on the internet has played out, where instead of banning specific URLs, entire websites had been banned. A right way to approach this would be to work with social media platforms which are inadvertently helping with the propagation of the relevant hashtags. While that may or may not happen, we can at least start addressing the core issue at hand.
“If parents find it difficult to stay up to date with latest internet trends, government bodies can help them out by launching awareness programs in schools and colleges educating students on safe online behavior. Teenagers need to be made aware of how digital footprints they leave online are traceable, and how they should exercise caution before sharing personal details with a stranger online,” says Srivastava.