When I typed ‘Blue Whale’ on the android Play Store, an app with a low rating of 2.5 appeared: Blue Whale Simulator 3D. Reviews of the app, available on the same page, state that it should be banned and deleted. Their claim is that users should “hate it because it is encouraging suicide, especially in children.”
Maybe these reviewers were on to something, because after downloading the app, I did hate it. Not because it was a sinister game that encouraged me to cause self-harm, but because the android game was just like one of my aunts: the game instructed me to find a whale mate, and then make and raise a family of baby whales. Even my paranoid parents would love the game rules: “Avoid meeting underwater monsters and make a really safe lair for your family.”
The Play Store has a handful of apps that have the words ‘Blue Whale’ in them; some are blue whale screensavers; others are adventure games that involve tussles with sharks. Unfortunately, all their ratings have dropped, and unnecessary warning comments about the apps leading to suicide have been left in the reviews.
So, why is the world suddenly united against hating all apps with the words ‘Blue Whale’ in their name?
The answer takes us back to Russia in 2013. The ‘Blue Whale Challenge’ reportedly rooted itself in Russian social media websites such as VKontakte. But the first alleged challenge-related suicide did not occur till 2015. The Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which was later accused of sensationalising the story, claimed that ‘administrators’ of the ‘challenge’ sought out vulnerable teenagers who were suffering from depression, developed intimate online relationships with them, providing them attention that they otherwise lacked, and then handed them 50 tasks, over a period of 50 days. The tasks progressively grew more dangerous and ended in commanding the ‘players’ to take their own life.
But the Novaya Gazeta report made a basic mistake; it understood co-relation as causation. Since several teenagers who had committed suicide were part of social networks that were being targeted by ‘Blue Whale’ administrators, the report claimed that the Challenge and the suicides were linked. Without any solid evidence, the report announced that “it had found at least 130 cases tied to the [Blue Whale] phenomenon between November 2015 and April 2016.”
On the other hand, Snopes, an online fact checking website, has found that although there have been reports of young people committing suicide in Russia (this is nothing new since Russian adolescent suicide rates are second only to New Zealand’s), there is no conclusive tie between the suicides and the ‘Blue Whale’. The United Kingdom’s Safer Internet Centre has also dismissed the phenomenon as “a sensationalised fake news story.”
Fake news or not, the moral panic associated with the challenge, has journeyed across former Soviet countries and the European Union, travelled across the Pacific and reared its head in North and South America, and has now doubled back to spread like wildfire in India.
Indian media reports that children across the country have committed suicide because of the ‘Blue Whale Challenge’. As a response, the Indian Ministry of Information Technology asked Facebook, Google, and others, to immediately remove any links to ‘Blue Whale’ and unsurprisingly, the ban-happy Delhi High Court has submitted a petition to ban the ‘game’.
This week, Pakistan also joined the moral panic party: reports can be found on various English and Urdu online news websites, incorrectly implying that there is a downloadable game out there that will force your child to commit suicide if it finds them. Local television channels report that the Pakistani Senate has debated banning the game – displaying for the umpteenth time how our policy makers have completely failed to grasp how the internet works.
There are several problems with this approach. The first, as mentioned earlier, is that the ‘Blue Whale Challenge’ does not exist as an app, or website, or software that can be banned by clinking one button; it was ‘played’ in private chats between ‘administrators’ and participants. So, in effect, if any court wants to ban ‘Blue Whale,’ they either need to ban malevolent humans, or chat rooms, both of which are impossible tasks.
Another problem is that this may have been a great opportunity to educate citizens about surfing safely, to teach the public how to avoid MalWare (malicious software), to instruct internet users prevention from online bullying and blackmailing, but has been lost.
Aside from encouraging a fear of technology, the largest problem with the ban-plan is that it sidelines the issues of adolescent depression, self-harm, and suicide. A quick Google search reveals that the list of 50 tasks that the original ‘Blue Whale’ administrator allegedly asked participants to perform is floating around the internet, which means that the ‘Blue Whale’ as a concept has arrived. But, Dr Ali Madeeh Hashmi, a psychiatrist and the coordinator at the Punjab Psychotrauma Centre, points out that “a well-adjusted teenager, one who is heard by a supportive family, who receives much-needed validation, may search for the tasks out of curiosity but after performing a few tasks their internal radar will warn them and the fascination would end.”
Meaning that softwares, apps, and websites are not going to kill our young adults, but ignoring depression and other mental health issues, coupled with the lack of a national policy on suicide prevention might.
There is a concept in Pakistan that things expressly forbidden in Islam don’t exist in the country; a non-exhaustive list includes alcohol, sex outside of marriage, and suicide. But, we all know otherwise. Since Pakistan does not compile national suicide statistics on a formal level, I present anecdotal evidence. At three instances of my life, loved ones have tried to commit suicide. One story ended in a hospital emergency room, one in a police station, and one at a funeral.
Events and incidences can trigger individuals, but the moment we start treating these triggers as causes of suicide, we risk our children’s life. “Nobody decides to commit suicide in a day,” says Jannat Fazal, an MS in Clinical Psychology and a mental health counsellor and trainer at Digital Rights Foundation. “Suicide and depression are not a phenomenon that has one single determinant, such as a bad breakup or failure, or the ‘Blue Whale Challenge’. Such events should be thought of as tipping points, or triggers.”
Suicide or self-harm are typically caused by depression (which may be genetic or environmental, or most often, a mix of both) over a long time; by children internalising that they are worthless because parents and peers have not provided them with the validation they needed; by a heightened sense of disassociation; by trauma caused by emotional, sexual or physical abuse; this catalogue merely highlights reasons most commonly cited for self-harm in Pakistan.
While speaking to Dr Hashmi about the moral panic surrounding the ‘Blue Whale Challenge’, I ask him that keeping aside my personal exposure to suicide, and despite the gloom that hangs around the country, aren’t we lucky that the Pakistani youth don’t appear on the global top-ten lists of country-wide depression, or self-harm, or suicide? Dr Hashmi laughs and says that this is simply because no nationwide survey has ever been conducted on adolescent mental health. “If a survey was ever conducted, I would be amazed if Pakistan didn’t end up in the top-ten list of most depressed young adults, or adolescents most prone to self-harm or suicide.”
This means that if the ‘Blue Whale Challenge’ is not an urban legend and does exist – i.e. across the world in China, India, Argentina, Russia, US, Slovenia, there is a web of malicious administrators, who are carefully translating the game into their respective languages, looking for vulnerable teenagers online, developing relationships with them, and then commanding them to kill themselves – then Pakistan, with its high proportion of vulnerable adolescents, is ripe for the plucking?
Dr Nazish Imran, an associate professor of child psychiatry at King Edward Medical College, says, “Yes, if the Blue Whale Challenge were true, Pakistan’s youth would certainly be vulnerable.”
She describes the situation of teenage mental health as a “grim picture” and says that the handful of school-based studies that have been conducted so far on mental health and self-harm have revealed “worryingly high rates”.
According to her, the causes are multi-determinant: poverty, lack of education, unemployment, terrorism, lack of validation, neglect, elongated inability to cope with pressure. “I have no data to back this up, but based on personal experiences, I would say that mental health issues and suicide rates amongst teenagers in Pakistan are rising.
“The cases I hear about and examine are merely the tip of the iceberg, because the social stigma ensures most stories and victims are kept hidden.”
Why is it that that the already existing condition of depressed adolescents doesn’t move us, but the threat of the ‘Blue Whale Challenge’ has alerted our senate?
It’s easy to fear and blame technology, especially an ambiguous and intangible app or software that was manufactured by the Other, in the faraway foreign land of Russia. It’s more difficult to check our self-imposed social taboos surrounding depression and suicide; to question why there has never been a television drama that focuses on childhood depression; to make time to check in with young adults and listen to them; to demand our policy makers to conduct surveys and subsequently provide us with mental healthcare; and to consider, for a second that just because our religion forbids suicide, our children would never dare to take their lives – because they have and they do.