The Blue Whale Suicide Challenge:
The role of online games in spreading self-harm amongst vulnerable teenagers
Applied Psychology students of Thomas More University of Applied Sciences and international Erasmus students wrote blog posts on psychology & technology. You can read the three best posts here: on the blue whale challenge, nomophobia, and online dating.
by Maria del Mar Giner Diaz & Franziska Voß
The Blue Whale Suicide Challenge was born in Russia in 2013 by Philipp Budeikin, a psychology student expelled from university. He used a Russian social network called VKontakte to get in touch with teenagers and introduced them to the challenge (Lupariello, Curti, Coppo, Racalbuto, & Di Vella, 2019). His intended, underlying reason was to clear society of weak people that do not deserve to live. Most of the about 200 victims were Russian, followed by Indian ones. These high numbers of suicide victims show the ‘effectiveness’ of this game, so that even after the inventor got arrested in 2015 more of the so called curators were attracted to spread and lead the challenge (Kumar, 2017).
The curators work individually and first target a victim with a weak psychological condition (Mukhra, Baryah, & Krishan, 2019). Some commonalities can be found among these victims, as generally they are more psychologically vulnerable teenagers. Research found several risk factors on epidemiological, psychological, psychiatric, social and cultural levels (Lupariello et al, 2019). This means for example teenagers with complicated upbringings, problematic family situations, experiences of abuse, neglect or other negative life experiences. Also teenagers with psychological issues could be considered easier targets for the game (Kumar, 2017).
So how does this dangerous game work? Once a victim is found, the curator sends the challenge to the chosen teenager via a closed social media network, together with a link to a virus to access his/her devices (Mukhra, 2019). Many teenagers accept to start the challenge because of its thrill and a feeling of being chosen and important. Other teenagers even search for curators by posting hashtags like #curatorfindme (Khattar, Dabas, Gupta, Chopra, & Kumaraguru, 2018).
The challenge consists of 50 tasks which the player has to complete within 50 days. The players need to send visual proof of completed challenges to the curator or need to post pictures on the internet with hashtags like #I_am_whale as proof (Mukhra, 2019).
The tasks increase in difficulty and level of self-harm and they are created in a way that the player becomes solitary and stranding, just like blue whales. Challenges increase from small cuttings, days of watching horror movies, over climbing tall buildings, sleep deprivation and isolation as well as connecting to other ‘whales’ and end up in severe self-harm actions. The teenagers are getting more and more involved with the challenges and by the time they have reached the 50th task, the game has completely abducted them. The main issue is that the ultimate task forces the player to commit suicide (Lupariello et al., 2019; Kumar, 2017).
But one can ask himself why someone would go that far to commit suicide because of a game? Once the challenge has started and the virus is on the teenagers’ devices, there is hardly any way to end the game. The players are not allowed to exit the game at any time and the curator even dares his victims to complete the tasks at given times. In case a player would mention to exit, the curators will bully or blackmail him/her or even threaten his/her family (Mukhra, 2019). The inventor of the challenge strategically abused psychological frameworks, especially on motivation, desensitization and habituation, as well as exploited the fear and reward mechanisms of the victims. The players get a feeling of reward by achieving higher levels of the game, which will get them engaged again to accept even harder challenges of self-harm. Self-inflictions could be misrepresented as winning against their fears. They create a brave self image and get confirmation by the curator or ‘peer whales’. He also used grooming behaviors towards the victims, made them stay isolated and remain faithful to draw them into the game and ensure their subjugation .
The Blue Whale Suicide Challenge shows an example of how harmful the media can become to youngsters nowadays and to what extend psychological and technical knowledge can be abused. It also shows the importance of professional guidelines and prevention to avert further or similar cases.
Khattar, A., Dabas, K., Gupta, K., Chopra, S., & Kumaraguru, P. (2018). White or Blue, the Whale gets its Venegeance: A Social Media Analysis of the Blue Whale Challenge [preprint]. Retrieved 26.10.2019 from Arxiv: https://arxiv.org/abs/1801.05588
Kumar A., E. (2017, September 23). Psychobiological determinants of ‘Blue Whale Suicide Challenge’ victimization: A proposition for the agency mediated mental health risk in new media age [preprint]. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/8xh92
Lupariello, F., Curti, S. M., Coppo, E., Racalbuto, S. S., & Di Vella, G. (2019). Self-harm Risk Among Adolescents and the phenomenon of the “Blue Whale Challenge”: Case Series and Review of the Literature. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 64(2), 638-642. https://doi.org/10.1111/1556-4029.13880
Mukhra, R., Baryah, N., & Krishan, K. (2019). ‘Blue Whale Challenge’: A Game or Crime? Science and Engineering Ethics, 25(1), 285-291. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-017-0004-2
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