Blue Whale Challenge: Why do kids play such self-harming games? Can it be stopped?

New Delhi: With each passing day, our dependence on technology is gradually but unfaltering rising. And with this, the demarcations between the virtual and the real world is getting blurred, leaving people at a loss to differentiate one from the other. If the situation reads alarming, then the reality is certainly no better. On July 29, a 14-year-old boy in Mumbai allegedly committed suicide by jumping off the terrace of his seventh-floor apartment. While the police are yet to deduce the cause that triggered such a drastic step, by many Manpreet Singh’s death is believed to be the consequence of playing an online game — The Blue Whale game or Blue Whale Challenge.
A suicide game that supposedly originated in Russia, it coerces people into committing suicide. Apparently a group of administrators or a curator gives the participant a set of task, that vary from seemingly innocuous challenges like watching scary videos to self-harming tasks like cut your lip, for a period of 50 days. The game ends with the completion of the final task — jumping from a building and killing oneself. In the course of the game, the participants are also required to carve the shape of a blue whale onto their forearms. The Sun reports that the online game has claimed 130 lives between November 2015 to April 2016 in Russia alone. Though, so far, there is no official confirmation of the existence of the game.
What propels a child to play these games and, finally, unflinchingly, go all the way?
Dr. Sapna Zarwal, a Delhi-based child psychologist, identifies two types of children who are more 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,” she says. “Those who are generally teased as ‘losers’ get a sense of vindication by playing these games,” Zarwal states, adding that playing these games and performing the tasks give them a sense of achievement, albeit a false one. The psychologist is also quick to point out that these games thrive on manipulation as they play with the emotions of the participants.
Gorav Gupta, a psychiatrist in Delhi, feels the same and says that it is indeed the urge to do something adventurous that leads children to play these self-harming online games. “It is almost like experimenting with drugs. You know it is not good for you and yet you go ahead for the sense of thrill it entails,” Gupta says. There is also peer pressure that subtly nudges one to play these games. “You want to brag about it to your friends, you want them to know that you are brave enough to perform the tasks the game you were asked to,” Zarwal says. According to a report in the Mid Day, the 14-year-old boy had told some of his friends that he was playing this the Blue Whale Game and that would not be in school on Monday. Was the boy bragging about his ‘feat’? Maybe not, but again maybe.
Both Zarwal and Gupta believe that playing such online games or even video games for a long period of time not only trigger violent behavior in children but also make it difficult for them to distinguish between the virtual and the real word. And in this respect the parents have a big role to play. “Parents must always look for any sudden changes in a child’s behavior,” Zarwal cautions, and adds that they must keep a tab on their offspring’s social media activities. “It is important for parents to monitor their children’s behavior and look out for warning signs — glaring or not,” Gupta says.
Arundhati Chavan, president of the PTA United Forum agrees. She told the Indian Express that “children nowadays are increasingly keeping up with trends in social media and ‘the blue whale challenge’ is another such example. The government needs to have a strict cyber security system and ban sites that perpetrate such gory deeds. Parents should monitor the digital footprints of their children and only give limited access to social media websites to adolescents.”
She added, “We are planning to conduct workshops to educate parents as well as students about the pros and cons of social media.”
Drawing an interesting analogy, Zarwal says the kids who participate in these games are akin to those who children who volunteered to stay in a dark room for a long time, only to prove how fearless they were to their peers. “The thrill is the same,” Zarwal says. The outcome, however, is more fatal. It is time to change the accepted notions of bravery and cowardice, perhaps.

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