Though it may be an urban legend, the Blue Whale has been reported by many outlets to be a social media game that has “curators” who target players between 10 and 14 years old, pushing them into doing a list of pained daily tasks such as waking up in the middle of the night, cutting shapes into their skin, and, ultimately, committing suicide. “For the last 10 days, the player needs to wake up at an appointed early morning hour, listen to music, and contemplate death,” Bloomberg reports. “Those who get cold feet and want to leave the game receive threats, often that their parents will be killed.”
Unconfirmed reports of kids falling into the trap have come out of Russia, Estonia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine — and now from Curitiba, Brazil, where the mayor told his staff that it had sent seven kids to the hospital, as well as from Essex, Devon, and Cornwall, England, where the Daily Mail reports officials have issued warnings to parents.
“The expansion of Internet connectivity and social media has created new opportunities for entering into suicide pacts,” cybercrime expert Robert Muggah of the Brazilian Igarapé Institute tells Bloomberg. “The practice of suicide has migrated online, and younger people may be acting alone or as part of a wider collective.”
There have been no reports about the Blue Whale in the U.S. But Justin Patchin, co-director of the Wisconsin-based Cyberbullying Research Center, tells Yahoo Beauty that it has been on his radar since February — and that it is the center’s belief, from speaking to those in the supposedly affected countries, “that it is a complete hoax … or at least it started out that way,” with the possible goal of shutting down social networks in Russia.
In any event, online challenges that dare or cajole teens into risky behavior — from the cinnamon and duct-tape challenges to the oft-deadly choking game — are nothing new. That includes reports of suicide, such as the 11-year-old boy who recently killed himself after learning through text messages of the suicide of his 13-year-old girlfriend — which turned out to be a cruel social media prank. In 2008, an alleged Internet “cult” led to the suicides of seven teenage friends in a small U.K. town.
“Part of it is the need to fit in, to be a part of the pack, to be appreciated — to be a part of something bigger than themselves. The last thing a teen wants is to be excluded,” Patchin says. “Even if no one else is doing it yet, they think maybe it’s a way to get likes, followers, recognition if they take this risk.”
Historically, he adds, adolescents have always engaged in risky behavior — it’s just more evident now thanks to social media. “Adolescents in general are vulnerable, so they’re trusting and in some cases naive. They think they are invincible,” Patchin notes. “Most teenagers don’t think much about death or harm.”
Whether or not the Blue Whale is true, advises adolescent psychologist Barbara Greenberg, “This should not be referred to as a game. Basically, what happens is that depressed kids are led to believe that they are playing a game — when in fact they are dealing with mental health issues.” She adds, “I am not a parent blamer, but this is further reason why parents need to monitor their kids’ behavior. Depressed kids who are isolated are susceptible. Parents should monitor changes in behavior.”
And there are ways to remain on high alert without living in a state of panic, notes Patchin, who offers these tips for concerned moms and dads:
“It’s not rocket science, but be in the conversation with your kids: Who are they communicating with? What are they seeing online?” Having the kind of dialogue where they want to show you the disturbing things they see online, rather than hide them, is what to aim for. And using good judgment in how we respond to such revelations is important to keep that dialogue open. “If we freak out and threaten to take away the device, they won’t come to us anymore,” Patchin says. “This becomes harder as kids get older, so it’s important to instill [the dynamic] at a young age.”
Look for changes in technology usage. “If you have the kind of kid who is connected a lot and suddenly wants nothing to do with technology — or if they suddenly get disproportionately upset with limits you set,” such as no phones at the dinner table, “then something is going on there.” Also, if you have the type of relationship that includes a healthy, ongoing dialogue and all of a sudden they are less forthcoming about what’s going on online, Patchin says, “that’s a cue you need to do additional prodding.”
Bottom line: The youth are the experts, so it’s highly likely they’ll find out about disturbing trends before adults. “So routinely have these conversations about what’s going on online,” he says.
Read more from Yahoo Style + Beauty: