Blue Whale is a game described, somewhat oxymoronically, as being “hidden online.” Teens who sign up for it are given a daily task, which might include cutting one’s self, watching The Ring, or doing something innocuous like sawing tree branches. On day 50, the mission is to commit suicide.
Like any good moral panic, Blue Whale hysteria employs alarmist language, lacks specifics, and offers no proof. The Origin of the Spurious claim seems to be a May 2016 article from Moscow’s Novaya Gazeta. The newspaper reported there had been scores of Russian teen suicides over six months, with some of the victims being members of an online gaming community on VK, a social networking site.
While both the specific gaming community and Blue Whale are real, there is no credible evidence for the game being the online equivalent of Jonestown. Still, the idea plays on fear of the unknown and troubled teens do commit suicide, so the narrative carries a ring of plausibility. Therefore, when a young Russian kills themselves, some media and prosecutors jump to the post hoc conclusion that Blue Whale was the cause. But many of those committing suicide may have also eaten a lot of hash browns and that doesn’t make taters the cause of self-harm.
Still, according to a Radio Free Europe report, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan are seeing “alarming Blue Whale headlines daily.” But in its investigation, RFE found no suicides that could be definitively tied to the game.
This focus concerns mental health workers because parents, teachers, and police are searching for evidence that tweens and teens played a game, as opposed to looking for signs they might be demonstrating suicidal behavior. The focus is on hashtags and web searches instead of on traits of suicidal persons, such as a loss of interest in usual activities, giving away prized possessions, a drop in grades, and excess sleeping.
The Russian kleptocracy wasn’t about to let this opportunity to oppress go to waste. It proposed legislation to tighten Internet regulation and for good measure, blamed the macabre mess on “Ukrainian nationalists.” Then in Kazakhstan, the interior minister called for a national database of social-media users. That could have some unusual consequences. “My name is Dmitri and I’m required by law to tell you that I post to Instagram.” Meanwhile in Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek police have raided schools and Internet cafes looking for signs children have cut themselves or have received Blue Whale messages on their phones.
There has even been one arrest, of Russian Filipp Budeikin, on suspicion he organized this grave game. His lawyer told reporters, “They rushed things. There was an article in the newspaper, a bit of a scandal, pressure to do something. They thought evidence against him would come out, but there has been nothing.” Indeed, this arrest appears akin to the U.S. preschool hysteria in the 1980s.
Teens take their own lives due to feelings of inadequacy, humiliation, betrayal, hopelessness, or because of conflict with family, friends, and teachers. Also factoring in can be the inability to adapt during a time of great change and questioning in their lives. All of this can be exacerbated in periods of economic crisis and social upheaval.
Russian government statistics show that 720 minors committed suicide in 2016. But those same reports revealed the primary causes to be unrequited love, family issues, mental illness, a lack of opportunity, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Just one in 200 were suspected to have any connection to social media.
Not that there is zero cause for concern. A troubled youth thinking about ending it all should avoid games fixated on death. But that’s much different than thinking Blue Whale will send a stable, happy youngster spiraling into despair.
Blue Whale is another in a long tradition of moral panics. These have included jazz and the Red Scare in the 1920s, comic books and them Commies again in the 1950s, Dungeons & Dragons and loud music in the 1980s, and Internet age hysteria, which began with alleged aspartame atrocities and continued last year with constructed clown concerns.
Mass hysteria has traditionally been fueled by quaking quartet of preachers, teachers, parents, and police, and augmenting this today is a sensationalist, shallow media. 24/7 news postings means reporters are often doing only that – reporting – and not necessarily researching or verifying. The audience is likewise clueless, as social media is the main source of news for most. This creates a cycle, as the mere existence of news reports and law enforcement warnings gives rumors an unfounded credibility.
Like most moral panics, the Blue Whale Game centers on teens and young adults accessing something that older generations are either unaware of or don’t understand. It also involves another moral panic characteristic, Stranger Danger, in this case a dark anonymous overseer leading naïve youth to their demise. But the only verified victims so far have been rational thinking and measured responses.