More than 100 teenage suicides all over the world from the Blue Whale Challenge, including several in India, show the dark side of the digital age. Immersive technologies like virtual and augmented reality have the power to hypnotise youngsters, transporting them to an alternate universe where taking one’s life is nothing but a game.
Online challenges like Blue Whale and Pokemon are compelling due to several reasons. Players operate from behind a cover of secrecy and anonymity. They lose themselves in the virtual world and are disconnected from the “here and now” of the real world. There is a phased progression to higher levels, with a sense of achievement and reward in successfully crossing each hurdle.
The moderator engages the gamer through a range of communication styles – initial sympathetic listening ear and engaging the gamer, remarks of appreciation, subtle snide remarks if the gamer shows lack of willingness to engage, encouraging remarks to progress through to the next stage and the regular nudges to keep playing. The desire to move up the ladder is stoked by various cues on dashboard like rankings, competition metrics and notifications. The players have an urge to be a part of an accomplished group of people who bested the game.
Why are youngsters willing to commit suicide for a mere game? This could be because the victims were already emotionally vulnerable, and the game only acted as a trigger. The online universe offers a degree of ‘normalisation.’ The gamers come in touch with like-minded individuals and begin to think ‘I am not alone with these feelings and can be part of this group.’
Adolescents are the most vulnerable age group which harm themselves trying to meet these online challenges. They are at a susceptible phase in the life cycle and are subject to peer pressures and longing for being accepted by others. This is fully taken advantage of by the game moderator who plays a dominant role, deriving a sadomasochistic pleasure by inflicting pain on the victim under the anonymity and secrecy of the online world.
Parents and teachers should be aware of this digital phenomenon that impacts the life of children so hard. Watch out for any abrupt change in their behavior and daily routine, such as isolating themselves, spending longs hours online, secretive behavior, mood swings, self-esteem issues and self-inflicted wounds. Be open and approachable and develop a genuine curiosity in the interests and passions of your children. Encourage them to be open about their feelings and speak to teachers, friends, family and peers, rather than seek solace in the online world for their inner struggles. Educate children about the dark side of the Internet and dos and don’ts.
It is only natural to blame the Internet and digital age and brand the phenomenon of Blue Whale as the problem of iGen or Generation Z. This truly isn’t the case. If we were to look back, we will find similar phenomena happening in all ages, as human vulnerabilities and emotions remain the same.
The Blue Whale Challenge is an ongoing, malevolent social experiment targeting the iGen. There is nothing that stops the creators from developing similar games to attract people of other age groups. A fresh risk has emerged with the new anonymised application called Sarahah which can complement the existing social media platforms and have a multiplier effect.
It is essential for the Government to monitor the Internet and ensure it is a safe place for children. An international collaborative effort is required that brings together major Internet platforms to thwart the menace.