The “Blue Whale Challenge” reared its head again this week. What a truly grotesque and disturbing thing; it is at once shocking and completely predictable. Of course in 2017 there is a social media “game” convincing teenagers to kill themselves.
But is the Blue Whale Challenge real? That’s what we all want to know. Does the Blue Whale Challenge really exist, and is it even possible to get inside someone’s head like that? How do we keep kids safe from it? Or is it a hoax, is it paranoia? Is it “Korean fan death” all over again, a convenient patsy for teen suicide that somehow — although viscerally sickening — makes more sense and is easier to accept than simply not knowing why? It doesn’t matter. Teenagers are killing themselves at an increasingly alarming rate, double what it was 10 years ago, and it’s not because of an online game.
According to a 2015 study by the CDC, referenced by the Jason Foundation, suicide is now the second leading cause of death among young people aged 10-24, and suicide accounts for more teen deaths than cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease combined. Over 5,000 young people attempt to kill themselves every day. Too many of them succeed.
Suicide is somewhat in vogue right now too with 13 Reasons Why burning up the charts; in the news, a cruel story of a man told to kill himself by a friend has grabbed headlines as well.
The whale in the room
These are just two. Searching for these hashtags on Twitter reveals thousands of kids trying to contact a “curator” to begin playing the Blue Whale Challenge. In the last couple hours since I began working on this piece, it seems Twitter went on a purge. Earlier, there were many accounts with no picture and very generic names replying to these poor kids and telling them to contact them via Kik, an anonymous messaging app.
For those unfamiliar with the lore of this thing, the idea is that some faceless monster of a human called a “curator” sends these kids daily “challenges.” Real fun, wholesome stuff, like staying awake for two days and then going to stand at the highest point you can find and think about death. The last of the 50 challenges is purported to be straight-up suicide.
The truth of the matter is complicated, according to Snopes, whose website still lists the claim of the existence of Blue Whale as unproven. Appearing to start in an area of Russia in May 2016, there was a group of young people who were part of a suicidal internet chat group, with a cult-like worship of a Russian teenage girl named Rina Palenkova who killed herself after posting a photo on the internet. They started a few groups, including one called Sea of Whales. That particular group then created an ARG, or alternate reality game, called “Insiders,” that seems to be where the current idea of the Blue Whale Challenge originated. In an interview, the purported administrator of Sea Of Whales said that in no way were they trying to brainwash people into suicide, but were using the game as a way to drive traffic to their site.
One year later, in May 2017, an article began appearing in English language magazines which purported to be an interview with the creator of the Blue Whale Challenge, a 21-year-old named Philipp Budeikin. Snopes has trouble proving whether this is true or not, but purportedly Budeikin claimed responsibility for only 17 of the 130 that this article claims he was blamed for. The alleged Budeikin speaks with all the emotion of a crocodile when asked if he actually talked young girls into suicide.
“Yes. I really did. Do not worry, you will understand everything. Everyone will understand. They were dying happy. I gave them what they did not have in real life: warmth, understanding, communication.”
According to the unverifiable article, he remains imprisoned in Russia.
A 15-year-old boy in San Antonio, Texas, took his own life Saturday morning, and parents blamed it on the blue whale. Another teen, a girl in Georgia, also committed suicide, purportedly because of blue whale challenge brainwashing.
Personally, I don’t think that it was real a year ago, or even a few months ago. The stories are completely unverifiable, and the information is spotty at best. However, I think these latest reports are true. It is entirely reasonable to think that after the initial reports, a few uncreative, bad actors thought that it was a great idea, and went online to prey on teenage depression.
The idea of the Blue Whale Challenge is the perfect 21st century nightmare. A world where suicide, anxiety, depression, and ADHD rates are skyrocketing. A world where we are so connected to strangers via social media. A tragic poem of total connection to names and pictures and words, but an infinite loneliness and want for human connection. Suicide by social media.
A tightrope through a wind storm
Does the blue whale challenge exist? Maybe. But that should be the least of our concerns.
There’s no such thing as magic. No series of challenges has the ability to completely dismantle an otherwise healthy mind. It is possible to manipulate, but at a certain point free will does come into play. However, if a teenager is depressed, sad, lonely, and afraid, it becomes far easier to push them over the edge. Young adulthood is an emotional tightrope walk through a windstorm, every step more precarious than the last, while the mind soaks up impressions and changes every day.
Kids live on social media now — as do many of us — in a world of superficiality, popularity contests, and fake human connection. We trade the messy, complicated human interaction of old for a clear, simple, easy to digest and ultimately meaningless “like.” We trade disgust for an angry emoji. We’ve jumped into a world we do not understand, which offers a pale substitute for reality, and then we wonder why so many of us aren’t doing well.
This is in addition to the normal turmoil and difficulties that teenagers have always faced, by the way. They’re still going to have to deal with love’s first loss on top of all of that.
Yes, the blue whale challenge is terrifying. It hits me in a sickening way I’ve never felt before. But it is not enough to simply go through your child’s phone and make sure they aren’t playing the blue whale challenge. It isn’t enough to warn them about it, though you absolutely should. If tomorrow it turns out that the whole thing was completely fake, then by no means should you rest on your laurels and think that everyone is safe now and the storm has passed. It hasn’t. It never will. Depression will still exist, loneliness will still exist, and alienation will still exist.
Talk to your children. Get to know them, and get to know their friends. It can be hard to get more than monosyllabic grunts from teenagers (God only knows how difficult this humble writer could be, once upon a time), but the only thing that is going to help young adults — and people of all ages, this is not isolated — through those darkest of nights is human connection. Ours is the duty to make sure that those around us know they matter. Sometimes it’s as simple as a hug or a kind word, but not usually. Human connection is complicated. It’s messy. It involves sadness, anger, and frustration with people as much as it involves love, happiness, and friendship. It involves all of those things, because all of those things do say the same thing: it matters to me that you’re still here.
[Featured Image by SanderStock/Thinkstock]