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Posted at: Sep 10, 2017, 1:24 AM; last updated: Sep 10, 2017, 1:24 AM (IST)

The game of death

The deadly Blue Whale Challenge is claiming more and more young victims at an alarming rate
The game of death
Istock

Abha Kohli

“You can enter it, but cannot exit the game,” wrote young Vighnesh in his suicide note. The 19-year-old college student was reportedly Tamil Nadu’s first casualty of the dangerous Blue Whale Challenge suicide game. Vighnesh was found hanging from a ceiling fan in his Madurai home. 

Some shocking statistics reveal that India is reportedly among the top countries which have had maximum hits for this fatal internet game. Within 24 hours of Vighnesh’s death, two more cases have been reported, one from Puducherry and one from Howrah, in West Bengal. The Howrah teenager was stopped before he ended his life. Another recent victim includes Ashok Maluna of Gujarat, who jumped into the Sabarmati river. A 17-year-old boy, Abhishek Bhargav from Ludhiana, hanged himself, with his hands bearing markings of a sharp object.

While the authorities, schools and parents are alert to the danger, news of more and more youth falling prey to this ghastly game continue to come in almost daily.

Hidden danger

This disturbing phenomenon, where an internet game lures emotionally troubled youngsters and drives them to suicide, points to a deeper problem. Instead of seeking help from family, friends or teachers, these kids preferred to find solace for their sufferings in a stranger online. 

The Blue Whale Challenge is a dare-based game, which requires participants to perform daily tasks for 50 days. On the last day, they are given the ultimate task of committing suicide. The game originated on a social media site in Russia called VKontakte. The series of tasks can include binge watching of horror films, inflicting self-harm, waking up at 4.20 a.m. to watch psychedelic videos that the curator sends and not talking to anyone throughout the day. Till date, reports state that over 130 teenage lives have been taken by the game. 

Driven to dare

What pushes young people to such limits? A misplaced sense of identity is one of the major reasons. Adolescence is a turbulent time for most children. The growth hormones make them question their basic self and sense of belonging — where and how they fit in with their peers, family and the community at large. This constant internal turmoil pushes them to indulge in unconventional, risk behaviours, which can make them stand out and look daring and get popular. They get enticed by such challenges, which give them a false sense of purpose. 

Peer pressure is another reason, especially for those with low self-esteem. In such cases, games like Blue Whale and even Pokemon and internet challenges like Mannequin and Ice Bucket play on the vulnerable adolescent psyche to create sensational vibes through social media. The fear of being left out by peers compels young people to engage in activities which are sometimes harmful. They get initiated into these fatal games either out of curiosity or a desire to fit in. But once in, it is hard for them to resist the pressure from others and exercise the choice to say ‘No’ for the fear of being isolated or rejected.

The anonymity of the digital world seems to give youngsters a sense of control over their world as they can choose not to reveal their identity. The thrill of the game doubles with it being a virtual reality. The challenge of confronting a stronger opponent as opposed to real life is not a threat and hence the player experiences greater control over himself which, however, may be a false perception. The control button in these games may not be visible to the ordinary eye but the curator has already controlled the player’s mind by involving him inextricably in the game. This is the point which these children often miss because of their limited ability to make responsible choices.

Vulnerable victims

Pre-adolescents from nine to 12 years and adolescents from 13 to 20 years are the two age groups most susceptible to harming themselves by accepting life-threatening dares whether in the real world or the virtual world. Self-harm is a common phenomenon adopted by children who feel rejected and/or abandoned as means to get back to people who they think have caused them pain and anguish. These kids readily accept dares like the Blue Whale Challenge to show the world that the control still lies with them. 

It is important for parents and teachers to notice warning signals and take immediate action. Children, who might be getting addicted to online games like Blue Whale, would often withdraw from physical and social engagement with friends and family. They will start spending unreasonable amount of time on computer/mobile phone and become secretive about their online activities. They may exhibit erratic moods and behaviours like irritation, restlessness and anger or may suffer from bouts of low mood swings without any ostensible reason. Parents should be alert and watch out for such signs. If the symptoms persist, they should seek professional help. 

Open up

Having open conversations about mental health problems, both at home and in educational institutions, have become imperative today when youngsters are neck deep in the online world. Open communication channels will help parents, teachers and school authorities understand the children’s perspective and gauge risk factors, if any, to make timely interventions. However, they should be careful to keep the tone of their conversations neutral, non-threatening, and non-suggestive. For such conversations to take place, parents should first make themselves available to talk to the children about issues other than their academic performance.

Involving kids in discussions about installing safety apps will help in minimising resistance from their wards and restrain their cyber activities, with complete knowledge about the parents’ intention for their well-being. It is also important for both, the teachers as well as the parents, to help children become assertive and develop the confidence to say ‘No’ to peer group or others.

It is essential for schools to hold workshops for children to educate them about the dangers lurking in the cyber space and how to keep themselves safe in the digital world. Schools can formulate student panels that could be trained by a professional. These panels can then develop peer mentoring programmes to educate other students about cyber-safety and stay vigilant about unsafe practices being adopted by any student in the school. Children are most likely to listen to their own peers more than their parents and teachers. 

Curbing dangerous activities like the Blue Whale Challenge requires support from authorities, including the government, the enforcement agencies and the media as well. From the obvious step of banning these games, the government should formulate a committee of cyber experts and develop programmess to educate the youth on the dangers in cyber space and equip them with ways to keep themselves safe in the digital world. The media, especially social media sites, too, should actively promote campaigns that de-glamourise such adventurous and risk-taking behaviour. 

The maturing minds of teenagers haven’t yet developed the ability to gauge risk, exercise restraint and take balanced decisions. They act on impulse and are quiet susceptible to external influence. Therefore, it is quite important to understand the reasons why children fall prey to such addictive, fatal internet games. It is necessary for parents, teachers and the school to treat the cause and not just the symptoms.

—The writer is counsellor at Shiv Nadar Schools, Delhi 

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