Games and challenges played via social media are not a new phenomenon. One of the best known challenges was the ALS ice bucket challenge, which raised enough money to support research discovering a new ALS gene. However, not all challenges are quite so constructive.
The latest one, the Blue Whale Challenge, is quite horrific. In this challenge, teens are given increasingly intense tasks to complete for 50 days that leads to self-harm and culminates in suicide by jumping off of a building. Teens challenge each other to play via social media and players are assigned game administrators who elicit their personal information that may later be used against them. Players are required to upload photos of the completed tasks, and if they refuse, game administrators may threaten to harm family members or come and do the task for them. It becomes extremely difficult to say NO.
While unconfirmed, this Russian-originated game has reportedly been responsible for 130 suicide deaths and one of the game's ringleaders, Philipp Budeikin, has just received a three year sentence after pleading guilty to provoking suicide. Two U.S. families have recently come forward stating that they believe their children completed suicide due to this challenge: a 15-year-old boy from Texas and a 16-year-old girl from Atlanta.
Instagram and Snapchat are the most common sites used for the challenge, though this and other death groups are also hidden in Facebook and Reddit. Blue Whale has also been known as A Silent House, A Sea of Whales, F57 or F-57 and more may appear. Social media sites are working to take preventative measures. For example, Instagram warns users searching Blue Whale that the content may be graphic and offers users resources for self-harm or suicide (though they do still allow users to view the content).
For parents who are wondering what you can do, the first step would be to know what the challenges are. There are lists of them online, but check back frequently as they can change. Examples include drawing a blue whale on paper, writing status updates about being a blue whale, and carving a blue whale into your arm. Monitor your child's social media accounts, have your own accounts so you can see what your child and their friends are posting, and teach your child the importance of sharing concerns with trusted adults. While Blue Whale is prevalent now, new trends might appear. Therefore, it is important to teach your child about general social media literacy, such as what constitutes inappropriate content and how to protect themselves from strangers and abuse.
Similar to when the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why aired, you may not be able to stop your child from exposure, but you can use these as opportunities for open dialogue about your child's feelings and experiences. Educate yourself and your child on suicide warning signs, which may include changes in behavior or performance in areas such as eating, sleeping, and academics, or a change of a friend group. Other warning signs may include teens feeling like they are a burden, feeling isolated, or having trouble making connections. This is also a good time to talk to your child about peer pressure and how to say NO if something feels unsafe or makes them uncomfortable. Most importantly, listen to your child without judgement to give them a safe place to disclose those deepest thoughts and feelings that might be hardest to share.
If you or someone you know is depressed, suicidal, or engaging in tasks related to the Blue Whale Challenge, help is available by calling the national suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), visiting their online chat at suicidepreventionlifeline.org, or texting START to 741741.
Erbacher is also a school psychologist for the Delaware County Intermediate Unit. She is co-author of the text Suicide in Schools: A Practitioner's Guide to Multi-level Prevention, Assessment, Intervention, and Postvention.