The Blue Whale

As savvy as I think I am with being ‘in the know’ about trends on the Internet, I was horrified when I came across a recent trend pertaining to suicide. The following article was published through the VICE Motherboard and was originally published on the VICE Italy website. The original post can be found at: https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/mgmwbn/the-truth-about-blue-whale-an-online-game-that-tells-teens-to-self-harm

On May 14, 2017 an episode of the satirical Italian TV program Le Iene (or “Reservoir Dogs” in English) aired a report dedicated to the ‘Blue Whale game’ (or ‘challenge’), a type of online game that came to life in different forums and groups on VKontakte, the most popular social network in Russia. In the game, players shared photos and videos of acts of self-harm that gradually became more serious.

According to a report conducted by the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, there should be a link between the Blue Whale game and numerous cases of teenage suicide in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan between November 2015 and April 2016: The victims had been members of VK groups dedicated to the game. However, in at least one of the cases cited—the suicide of a nineteen year-old Kazakh, Marat Aitkazin—the nature of the connection to the game can’t be confirmed. In fact, after taking a closer look at the Blue Whale phenomenon, it seems less like the shocking story Novaya Gazeta initially reported, and more like a perfect storm of internet creepypasta, media hysteria, and the very real and serious issue teenage suicide.

The story rapidly exploded in the media and arrived in Europe with rather alarmist tones, to the extent that it drove a comedy television show like Le Iene to discuss it. What remains to be seen is the line that separates mass hysteria from the genuine, actual danger of the phenomenon.

Image via The Siberian Times

The first possible instance of the Blue Whale game occurred in 2015, when a 17-year-old Russian girl named Rina Palenkova shared a selfie on VKontakte right before throwing herself in front of a train. Like the Marat Aitkazin case, nothing in the Palenkova one is certain: It happened before people started hearing about the game and before its rules started showing up online, but the girl’s selfie became a sort of meme in forums dedicated to depression and suicide.

It wasn’t until 2016, with the publication of the Novaya Gazeta report—which asserted that the game was responsible for another 130 cases of suicide among Russian adolescents—that Blue Whale started making news in Russia.

Of all the cases, the one that perhaps resonated the most was that of Yulia Konstantinova, age 15, and Veronika Volkova, age 16, both of whom—at the end of last February—jumped from a 14-story building in Ust-Ilimsk, a small town in the Irkutsk region of Eastern Siberia. A few days before, Konstantinova had posted the image of a blue whale on Instagram, while Volkova had shared depressive messages. According to the Siberian Times, the two boys who filmed the suicide were arrested at the scene of the incident on charges of incitement to suicide.

In November 2016, one of the presumed founders of the game, a 21-year-old psychology student named Philipp Budeikin, was arrested on charges of instigation to suicide. In an interview, Budeikin refuted the numbers reported in the Novaya Gazeta survey—and confessed to having personally induced 17 of those people to suicide.

“There are people and then there [are] scum, in other words, people who bring absolutely no value to society and who only do harm. I have cleansed society of these people,” Budeikin said. “It began in 2013. I created F57—” one of the groups on VK in which the game came to life “—In order to see what would happen. I filled it with shocking content and it started to attract people. It was banned in 2014. For a while, I would laugh along as I watched while everyone tried to understand what ‘F57’ meant. It’s simple: F is for Philipp, my name, and 57 were the last digits of my telephone number at the time. I thought of this idea over the course of five years. You might say that I had prepared it. I thought the entire project up, the different levels and the different steps. It was necessary to separate the normal people from the scum.”

In addition to Novaya Gazeta, other Russian newspapers have addressed the subject. The newspaper Meduza, in particular, criticized the article in Novaya Gazeta, arguing that the correlation between the game and the suicides is difficult to prove and that it would be more correct to argue that depressed teenagers with suicidal tendencies simply end up visiting the same online groups.

Still, given the considerable attention from the Russian press, the story was picked up by various international newspapers shortly thereafter, starting with the English edition of The Sun. It then spread throughout the entire world, where, because of its emotional nature, the story was widely covered in the media.

Around this time, the complete rules of the game appeared on Reddit for the first time ever. Apparently, in order to start playing, one needed only to express online their desire to take part in the game using the hashtag #f57—the name of Budeikin’s original VK group where the game had first been conceived, dedicated to self-harm and to inciting suicide—and wait to be contacted by “a master.”

After that, a person playing would have to undergo 50 days of “missions” to be considered accomplished enough to take on their final mission: killing him- or herself by throwing themselves off the highest building in their own city. According to various international newspapers that recently covered the story and the Reddit thread discussing the game, the tasks range from watching horror films, listening to disturbing noises, committing acts of self-harm such as carving a whale into one’s own skin, killing animals, and waking up at 4:20 AM (the game’s secondary name is “Wake Me Up At 4:20“), in a sort of all-consuming brainwashing process.

Each of the 50 tasks must be documented with a photo or video and sent to the administrator with whom the player is in contact, who would emotionally blackmail the player by threatening to harm the people they hold most dear. According to other theories circulated on the internet, the game might also involve the use of a specific app that “hacks” the victim’s telephone, but this hypothesis already seems to have been discredited.

As reported by the Italian website The Submarine, which does an extensive reconstruction of the events of Russian and foreign news reports on the matter, the Blue Whale spread widely throughout the west as of February 2017, and was cited in several cases of suicide in Spain, Argentina, Brazil, and (according to Le Iene) Italy as well.

The story from Le Iene is predicated on the case of a 15-year-old boy who jumped off the roof of a 26-story building in his home city of Livorno last March. It wasn’t until a reporter from Le Iene spoke to one of the boy’s classmates, whose statement indicated that the boy’s death was linked to the game, that it became clear he was the first alleged Italian victim of the Blue Whale.

Outside of Russia, the principal outlets for the game seem to be Instagram and Tumblr, where the hashtag #f57 has started to appear. Countermeasures have already been taken on both social networks to diffuse the game and the corresponding hashtag: for example, if you type #f57 into Instagram, you’ll get a notification offering help.

Between February and April 2017, the hacker collective Anonymous also decided to take action against the administrators of this game. They launched a movement called ‘#OpBlueWhale,’ which explicitly encourages young people to avoid getting involved with the game on number of occasions.

But this isn’t actually the first time a game was created—or at least disseminated online—that was based on psychological manipulation and has led to serious consequences amongst young people. The game “Fire Fairy,” for example, which also seems to have had origins in Russia, drove a five-year-old girl to leave the gas running at night, under the promise that she would become a “pixie” the following morning.

Several years ago, the “choking game” also made the news. The premise was that a person would suffocate, or be voluntarily suffocated by someone else, in order to deprive their brain of oxygen and consequently produce a “high” without using drugs or alcohol. Because of this, it was also called “the good boys’ game.” The choking game was treated in the media as the “latest online trend” among young people, whereas in reality they were dealing with something much older: as VICE reported at the time, the first death statements for this type of “accidental” asphyxiation actually date back to the 1930s.

The Slender Man—a fictitious character created in 2009 during an online competition in a forum on the humor website Something Awful, one that rapidly became a mysterious internet legend—was cited as a motive in a case of attempted homicide in 2014 in Wisconsin, when two 12-year-olds lured their friend into the woods and stabbed her 19 times in order to “impress the Slender Man.”

It’s worth noting that in all of the cases outside Russia, no occurrence of the game has been definitively demonstrated. The real correlation between teenage suicides and the game seems limited to a number of cases.

In general, it’s difficult to identify if information we receive about this is truly linked to the game, its imitations, or simply other pro-suicide groups, as there’s a slew of these on the dark web.

Dr. Shannon Barnett, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told Motherboard in an email that while this game exemplifies the risk of someone taking advantage of youth who are emotionally distressed, there is no one reason for adolescents to feel so bad that they have suicidal thoughts and/or thoughts of harming themselves.”The majority of teenagers with these thoughts have untreated mental illness, particularly depression and anxiety disorders,” Barnett said. She added that while it might be helpful for teens to seek help and validation from other teens online, the danger is that the peers on these websites do not have the skill set to help other teenagers. “Adolescents with thoughts of suicide or who engage in self-injury need to be encouraged to seek treatment from a mental health provider,” she said.

As The Submarine continues to highlight, and as we’ve previously written on Motherboard, there’s still corners of the deep web where suicide is discussed openly. Most of the time, they represent an unusual but effective service—a sort of outlet where people can seek help or vent. If one thing is certain, it’s that the debate on such a delicate topic shouldn’t be subject to reckless media hysteria, as is currently the case with Blue Whale.

Editor’s Note: If you or someone around you is exhibiting suicidal tendencies or self-harm please reach out to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.

Slut Shaming – Part II

 

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image credit: netflix.com

 

If you haven’t heard the buzz, the Netflix mini-series “13 Reasons Why” has taken over many conversations in the educational community.  Based on the book by Jay Asher,  it focuses on high schoolers (set in today’s educational environment) with the usual cliques (cool kids, preppies, honors kids, jocks, band kids, and…). A student at their school, Hannah, takes her own life, and another student, Clay, returns home from school to find that he has received a package in the mail containing seven double-sided cassette tapes from Hannah, each tape detailing an incident and a person that played into why she killed herself.  They had been sent to several others before arriving at Clay’s door.  There were 13 parts on Netflix, and, after watching each segment, I had a nasty knot in my stomach. Some knots were from my own awkward high-school experiences; others were from the blatant evil that today’s students can be subjected to or can utilize.

I don’t want to give away the entire story, but it starts with an incident that I blogged about last spring–slut shaming.  (On a side note, that post gained a bit of traction when someone became completely paranoid and thought he/she was the only one who received it. This is not sexual harassment; this is educational information.) Hannah has a picture taken of her with a boy on a “date” which is seen by the boy’s friend and taken completely out of context.  His friend grabs the phone and then sends the picture out to an entire class, which eventually makes it around the entire school.

Topics include the aforementioned slut shaming, rape, sexual assault, cover-ups, and societal acceptance–the daily grind of what high-school life is today. High school is an interesting navigation as is.  Throw in today’s technology, and you have a whole new world–a world where previous generations can’t even begin to fathom what is happening in school anymore.  It’s no longer passing notes and settling the score at the flagpole over some stolen milk money.

Teen suicide is the second largest cause of death in the US. For every teen who commits suicide, at least six others are thinking about following that same path. Despite such a terrible statistic, conversations are happening every single day about getting people the help they need. While the series has launched a multitude of proactive stances and resources, it has also caused some copy-cat incidents and some concerns from mental health experts.

Thankfully, 13RW is a fictional story. It is meant to raise awareness of suicide and is not based on any single or real person. However, while Hannah’s story is not real, students often do have similar experiences and thoughts to those of the characters and identify with those they see on TV or in movies. Therefore, it is important to remember that there are healthy ways to cope with the topics covered in this series, and acting on suicidal thoughts is not one of them.

If you have watched the show and feel that you need support or someone to talk to, reach out. Talk with a friend, family member, counselor, or therapist. There is always someone who will listen. Suicide should never be a response to life’s challenges or adversities. The vast majority of people who experience bullying, the death of a friend, or any other crisis addressed in 13RW do not die by suicide. In fact, most do reach out, talk to others, seek help, or find other productive ways of coping. They go on to lead healthy, normal lives.

Suicide is never a heroic or romantic act. Although some might watch 13RW and see Hannah in that light, there is nothing heroic at all. In fact, 13RW can be viewed as a tragedy. It is important to know that, in spite of the portrayal of a serious treatment failure in 13RW, there are many treatment options for all types of distress and mental illness.  Treatment works.

Suicide affects everyone, and we all can do something to help if we see or hear warning signs that someone is at risk.  Talking openly and honestly about emotional distress and suicide is okay.  It will not make others more suicidal or put the idea of suicide into their minds. If you are concerned about someone, ask him/her about it. Knowing how to acknowledge and respond to those who share their thoughts of emotional distress or suicide with you is important. Don’t judge them or their thoughts. Listen. Be caring and kind. Offer to stay with them. Offer to go with them to get help or to contact a crisis line.

In my opinion, how the counselor responded in this series is not appropriate and not typical of most counselors. School counselors are professionals and are a trustworthy source for help. While not everyone will know what to say or have a helpful reaction, there are people who do, so keep trying to find someone who will help you. If someone tells you that he/she is suicidal, take that information seriously and get help.

Leaving messages from beyond the grave is a dramatization produced in Hollywood and is not possible in real life. Memorializing someone who died by suicide is not a recommended practice. Decorating someone’s locker who died by suicide and/or taking selfies in front of such a memorial is not appropriate and does not honor the life of the person who died by suicide. Hannah’s suicide blames other people for her death.

Suicide is never the fault of survivors of suicide loss. There are resources and support groups for suicide-loss survivors. If you are immediately concerned about yourself or a friend, reach out for help by texting 741741 or visiting  http://www.crisistextline.org/. You can also learn about emotional health and how to support a friend by going to https://www.jedfoundation.org/help, and you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 | En Espanol: 1-888-628-9454 | Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889 or by visiting Suicidepreventionlifeline.org.