School administrators have begun sounding the alarm on a new social media challenge that potentially ends in teen suicide. The Blue Whale Challenge recruits new players, mostly on Snapchat, to complete a series of tasks over a 50-day period. At the end of the challenge period, a player must commit suicide to “win.”
Players apply to participate by posting messages on Snapchat, Twitter, or other social media sites with the hashtags #IamaWhale, #IwanttoPlay, and #searchingcurator. The challenges all require players to post pictures of the completed task. They start innocuously enough, with such challenges as drawing a picture of a whale or watching scary movies, but they soon escalate to self-harm. Later challenges include cutting shapes of whales into the skin, cutting veins, posting video of the player killing an animal, and other disturbing acts.
At least two teen suicides in America were attributed to the Blue Whale Challenge in 2017. One involved a 15-year-old boy in Houston who reportedly completed the challenge by broadcasting his suicide by hanging on Facebook Live. A 16-year-old girl in Atlanta also committed suicide as a result of the game.
The challenge first appeared internationally in 2017, but has accelerated in U.S. school districts this year. Students receive a recruiting pitch on social media in the form of being tagged, and encouraged to download an app called “Blue Whale Challenge.” Reportedly, once downloaded, users cannot remove the app from their phones, and all private information on the phone becomes available to the curator.
The psychological manipulation of the challenges increases over time. To prevent players from leaving, curators will blackmail participants with threats of revealing their information to parents, teachers, or friends.
The challenge reportedly originated in Russia, where as many as 130 teens may have committed suicide playing the game. The alleged inventor of the game is 22-year-old Philipp Budeikin, who was sentenced to three years in a Russian jail for inciting up to 16 girls to commit suicide through the game. Budeikin confessed to his actions, saying he was trying to cleanse society:
Yes. I truly was doing that. Don’t worry, you’ll understand everything. Everyone will understand. They were dying happy. I was giving them what they didn’t have in real life: warmth, understanding, connections. There are people – and there is biological waste. Those who do not represent any value for society. Who cause or will cause only harm to society. I was cleaning our society of such people.
Russian authorities expressed strong concerns over Budeikin’s continued influence over teens in that country, saying:
He started in 2013 and ever since he has polished his tactics and corrected his mistakes. Philipp and his aides at first attracted children into VK (social media) groups by using mega-scary videos. Their task was to attract as many children as possible, then figure out those who would be the most affected by psychological manipulation. Those who stayed were given much stronger tasks like cutting their veins, to balance on a roof top, to kill an animal and post a video or pictures to prove it. Most children left at this stage. A small group that was left obediently went through all the tasks, with teenagers being physiologically ready to follow whatever the administrators told them, no matter how strange or scary the tasks.
This use of disturbing images and videos online calls to mind Elsagate, in which creepy content creators serve up videos to young kids showing cartoon characters in severe emotional distress.
School districts across America have begun sounding the alarm, advising parents to talk to their children about the risks of the game. For instance, the Ohio Department of Education issued the following warning:
As an adult, we wonder why any youth would get involved in something like this in the first place, knowing the consequences. For one thing, we must consider the tween/teenage brain and where it is in development. Logic is not at the forefront. Curiosity is likely a large factor for seeking out this challenge, but depression and desire for acceptance may play a role as well.
Initiate conversations on the topic: Share the dangers of online challenges such as this; encourage them not to follow the crowd and not to feel pressured into doing anything that makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe.
Create an open, trusting environment: Provide them with opportunities to talk to you, then listen without judgment. Make sure they know that no matter what situation they may find themselves in the virtual or “real” world, including something you may find inappropriate, you are there to help them through it.
It is also important to monitor your children’s social media activities: Three hashtags that signal this particular game include: #BlueWhaleChallenge, #CuratorFindMe and #I_Am_Whale.
Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, Facebook, After School, and Tumblr have all added functionality to provide resources to users who may be contemplating suicide.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article implicated the After School app in the “Blue Whale Challenge” trend. In an email to PJM, the company stated:
The safety of our users and suicide prevention is a key focus of our efforts at After School. On 1/17/2018 we addressed teen suicide prevention with top national experts at an in-person conference in San Francisco called “Social Media Safety in Schools — Teen Suicide Prevention with Social Media.” Since first learning of the Blue Whale Challenge/Blue Whale Game nearly a year ago, we worked with our programmers and moderators to detect and block any message appearing to be related with the challenge. We also began working with leading experts in this field, including Cyberbullying.org’s Dr. Justin Patchin to learn more about the game and its potential impact on American teenagers. Dr. Patchin, one of the leading experts on cyberbullying and social media’s impact on youth firmly believes that the game is a hoax.
In addition to a wide-array of safety features and policies, After School works to help teens with mental health issues by helping them get free crisis counseling through our pioneering partnership with Crisis Text Line. After School has helped steer 100,000 youths to such counseling, leading to over 20 “active saves.”