THE internet throws up viral trends and challenges with unerring regularity, and for the most part these are fun, harmless and sometimes meant to raise awareness or funds for a good cause. In the past few months, however, a far more sinister challenge has emerged, one that has been linked to several reported cases of suicide, attempted suicide and self-harm around the world. Dubbed the Blue Whale challenge, this game apparently emerged in Russia, and while one was tempted to write it off as a baseless internet urban legend, the reports are now too numerous to ignore.
The Blue Whale challenge is an online game in which the administrator (also known as the curator) sets challenges and tasks for the player over a 50-day period. Players are encouraged to perform acts of self-harm, such as carving the outline of a blue whale on their arms with a razor and then submitting the photo to the curator as proof, and other activities aimed at psychologically destabilising the target and causing him or her to become increasingly socially isolated.
Some challenges require you to go an entire day without talking to anyone, and others require you to wake up at odd hours and watch disturbing videos sent you by the curator.
The game targets at-risk youth for manipulation.
One survivor describes the videos as being of teenagers jumping off roofs, close-ups of bodies, etc accompanied by very unpleasant music with screams of animals and pets, and cries like children who were being tortured.
While tasks vary from curator to curator, the final task is always the same: suicide. Indeed, the name of the game is said to refer to the tendency of whales to beach themselves for unknown reasons, thus in effect committing suicide.
Earlier this year, the Blue Whale game was linked to the suicides of two teenagers in the United States, and similar cases have been reported from other countries as well. The phenomenon has also made its way to India in recent months, where close to a dozen cases have been investigated by the police and reported to media.
Philip Budekin, a 21-year-old Russian man said to be the inventor of the game, makes the purpose of this twisted exercise clear, referring to his victims as biological waste who were happy to die, and says that he was in fact cleansing society by driving these people to suicide. Budekin is currently serving time in a Russian jail but new curators and admins have emerged to run the game in his absence.
While there has been anecdotal evidence and rumours that the game has also made its way to Pakistan, there have recently also been reports in the media to that effect.
Dr Imran, a psychiatrist at Peshawar’s Khyber Teaching Hospital, claims that two young men from Mardan approached him for treatment after suffering depression while attempting to complete the challenge.
They were the lucky ones because, as Dr Khan relates, they realised that the game would harm them, so they decided to see a doctor. It is the emotionally vulnerable and socially isolated who are most at risk, and these are the people the game targets.
According to Russian investigator Anton Breido, the goal was to attract as many children as possible, then figure out those who would be the most affected by psychological manipulation. As the challenges become progressively disturbing, most opt out leaving behind only those who are particularly vulnerable to this sort of brainwashing and grooming.
Particularly telling is the way Budekin describes his relationship with his victims, saying he was “giving them what they didn’t have in real life: warmth, understanding, connections”. Essentially, he preyed on the same vulnerabilities that online paedophiles and even terrorist recruiters exploit.
While many countries are trying to block the game, the problem is that it is not downloadable or website-based and transmits from peer to peer or through membership in closed groups. It has also emerged with different names, making it harder to monitor and control.
Ultimately, what parents and caregivers can do is to keep an eye out for warning signs in children, such as increased isolation and negative changes in behaviour. As clichéd as this may sound, open and honest lines of communication must be maintained in order to identify mental health issues before they reach a crisis point. Often, the game is only a catalyst for psychological problems that already exist, exacerbating a pre-existing condition.
One Indian child whose uncle suspected him of playing the game (after discovering signs of self-harm) told a psychiatrist: “If I knew how to access it, I would have done it and played the game till the end. But I don’t know how to access it.”
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, September 18th, 2017