It reads like a sinister film script – but the Blue Whale Game is just one of a growing list of dangerous online games with potentially the most devastating of outcomes. However, its reported consequences may – or may not be – an urban myth. Or an advertising ploy. Or a conspiracy…
So, what is it?
The Blue Whale Game is an online suicide game that originated in Russia in 2015, first appearing on the social media site VKontakte. Its target is to gain young, disaffected and impressionable teenage players aged between ten and 14 years old or so. The downloadable game is interactive and lasts for a period of 50 days. Players are assigned daily tasks by the online “masters” and must submit photographic evidence when they’ve been achieved. The tasks, however, become more extreme as the game progresses – culminating with the final assignment of committing suicide on day 50. There’s seemingly no way to quit, as those who want to back out reportedly receive threats that their parents, pets or friends will be killed if they do.
The internet is awash with claims that the game has been linked to 130 suicides in Russia and others in Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – as well as Portugal and Brazil.
Why are we hearing about this now?
Word about the game quickly spread to Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary, and then into Spain and Portugal. Now, awareness of it is moving further into Europe, the UK and beyond – as far as India, Dubai and Brazil. Some schools in the UK have already contacted parents to warn them of the notorious game and the story has been covered in the press.
A game that glamourises suicide is always going to appeal to young teens who feel detached and alienated from the world. But there are other issues to consider – such as the fact that Blue Whale is also being reported as being fake news – which can be found if you look more deeply into it online. Here are some things to think about:
- The game originated in Russia, a country that reported the third highest number of teen suicides in the world in 2011. Close on its heels are the former Soviet states (where the game has also been popular) of Kazakhstan and Belarus, reports The Moscow Times. And while such games will always appeal to troubled teenagers, official inquiries have not been able to conclusively link the suicides in Russia directly to Blue Whale.
- An investigation by the Bulgarian Safer Internet Centre found that the extensive use of hashtags around the Blue Whale game were made by “tens of thousands of bots” and not real people – using them as clickbait to drive game downloads and spread panic. Social media sites are now taking some remedial action: VKontakte is now said to be removing posts containing Blue Whale hashtags, as is Instagram. These include #bluewhale, #seaofwhales, #Iminthegame, #wakemeat4.20”, “F57”, “F58” and many others.
- There is also speculation that the game was “created” either to drive advertising or as a means to enhance state controls over the internet in Russia, eventually leading to a lockdown on social media freedoms…
With speculative media reports about Blue Whale and suicide sitting beside more measured, investigated and fact-checked ones, it’s up to parents and schools to draw their own conclusions, but also to educate and be aware of the possibility that vulnerable young people can easily be drawn to the game in which they find a community where they suddenly “belong”.
Of course, there is a danger that fake news can become real and prompt copycat behaviour. Such a game seems exciting at the start, especially to younger teenagers who don't always understand the full consequences of their actions.
A cautious approach to sensational reporting is probably wise in order to minimise the risk of making the game more attractive to young people, but vigilance towards students’ online safety and mental health is still the key priority for schools. There is so much information (true or otherwise) about this game online, that becoming informed by reading around the issue before drawing any final conclusions is recommended.
In terms of monitoring students’ activities, staff can keep a watchful eye over what kids are typing, searching for or copying from the internet while at school with NetSupport DNA’s keyword monitoring tool. Teachers can see immediately if any high priority words surrounding Blue Whale or these kinds of online suicide games show up in the trending topics word cloud, meaning that appropriate action can be taken quickly.
Real or fake, some children could still be at risk of being attracted to such a game. All that we can do is be vigilant; regulate and educate on internet use; be alert to the signs of any behavioural changes, and be ready to help and support those who are struggling.
Other suicide games
Unfortunately, Blue Whale isn’t the only dangerous game online. Here are a few others to watch out for in your school’s trending topics word cloud…
Salt and Ice Challenge
Neknomination (or Neck and Nominate)
More about Blue Whale and keeping kids safe online
Advice for those concerned about the ‘Blue Whale’ Hoax – UK Safer Internet Centre
‘Blue Whale’ game: ‘Fake news’ about teens spread internationally – NetFamilyNews blog
Online abuse – signs, symptoms and effects – NSPCC