To the first question, put simply, it’s a game where the curator, also known as a “whale,” gives a teen fifty tasks, one per day. At the end of the fifty tasks, the teen is told to commit suicide.
Suicide is the only way to complete the Blue Whale Challenge.
Blue Whale Challenge: Real or Hoax?
It’s unclear if the Blue Whale Challenge is real or if it’s just an urban legend, a hoax. The Blue Whale Challenge was believed to have begun on Russian social media. A Russian man has come forward, claiming it was he who started the challenge. He said he manipulated teenage girls into killing themselves, using psychology.
It is believed that some 130 children in Russia have killed themselves due to the Blue Whale Challenge. The earliest known Russian teen suicide due to the Blue Whale Challenge may have occurred in 2015 when Rina Palenkova took a selfie a moment before stepping in front of a train. Incidents believed to be caused by the Blue Whale Challenge have also been reported in Estonia, Ukraine, Kenya, Brazil, and Argentina.
The name of the challenge is taken from a song called “Burn” by Russian rock band Lumen. The lyrics speak of a “huge blue whale” that “can’t break through the net.” The song continues:
When no one hears,
What we’re talking about?
The song was popular enough to have been heard and sung by thousands of Russian teenagers.
Russian parents are urging the world to believe the Blue Whale Challenge is real. This, as two incidents have occurred in the United States in recent weeks. That would be 15-year-old Isaiah Gonzalez of San Antonio, Texas, and an anonymous 16-year-old girl in Atlanta, Georgia. Isaiah hung himself in his bedroom closet, his cell phone nearby to record the act live. The method of suicide for the young Atlanta girl is unknown. The girl left clues through her blue tinted artwork that contains partially disguised whale skeleton shapes
None of these deaths can be traced absolutely to the Blue Whale Challenge, if it does, indeed, exist. But each time there are clues that in retrospect, appear to be alarm bells. The girl in Atlanta, for instance, asked her mom to step on the roof of the house. There were many photos found after the girl’s suicide, presumably her proof at completing the tasks on the list. One of them shows her mother stepping onto the roof.
What does the list of tasks look like? Some of them are daunting, others are harmless, even boring. Here’s a group of typical Blue Whale Challenge tasks, culled from Reddit:
Carve a phrase on your hand or arm.
Wake up at 4:20 am and watch a horror clip (sent by the curator.)
Make long cuts on your arm.
Draw a whale
Write “yes” on your leg if you’re ready to be a whale. If not ready, cut yourself multiple times.
Complete a secret task sent in code
Scratch a phrase on your arm.
Write a social media status about being a whale.
Perform a task that scares you
Get up at 4:20 am and climb up to your roof.
Carve a whale on your hand.
Watch horror films all day.
Listen to music sent by the curator
Cut your lip.
Poke your arm or hand with a needle.
Hurt yourself or make yourself sick.
Climb onto a roof and stand at the edge.
Stand on a bridge.
Climb a crane.
Take a test of the curator’s devising to prove your trustworthiness.
Speak with a “whale” on Skype.
Sit on a roof with your legs dangling over the edge.
Perform a task given in code.
Perform a secret mission
Meet with your “whale.”
Your curator assigns you your suicide date.
Visit a railroad.
Don’t speak with anyone for 24 hours.
Make an oath or vow about being a whale
It’s hard to believe that teens could be persuaded by strangers to kill themselves. It may be the adolescent brain at work, telling teens to follow their dangerous impulses, without imagining the permanence of the consequences. For this reason, Lisa Bahar, LMFT, LPCC a family therapist suggests that spreading awareness of the Blue Whale Challenge is essential and can only be done by having a frank dialogue about social media, gaming and Internet use among parents, schools, and communities. “I would suggest making extra efforts to monitor the child or adolescent’s use of cell phones, computers, the Internet, as well as his social circle.
“Be aware of clues by listening to your ‘intuitive parenting’ when something feels off or unclear. Notice isolation in your child and check cell phones and computers regularly. If the child becomes too obsessive about the computer, cell, or a game, there is a clue the focus is too strong.”
Oleg Kapaev told Sky News that he undertook the challenge because he was “curious and bored.” He didn’t believe kids would really kill themselves because some random stranger commanded them to do so. This is due to the progressive nature of the tasks, which help to gain the participants’ trust. There’s a name for this. It’s called “grooming.”
“The psychological grooming of progressiveness in tasks is relevant, and educational efforts by schools, community leaders, perhaps law enforcement or at-risk youth organizations, can help by providing awareness to these games,” says Bahar, who suggests that parents comfortable with religion make an attempt to reconnect with the child through the family dynamic and values of religion and faith. “Suicide and death tend to lead people in the direction of faith, spirituality, and religion. Perhaps families can strengthen their connection to their family faith more consistently to keep outside guidance in check.”
Oleg went looking for the Blue Whale Challenge and found a curator after several days had elapsed. He found he was completely sucked into the challenge and was told he was a better performer than most and was therefore ready to do the final task earlier than others. Oleg was told to jump off a 20-story Moscow building.
Blue Whale Challenge: Final Task
The young man had been without sleep for several days and he was ready to go ahead and finish the challenge. The 20-year-old said, “I didn’t feel like I needed to kill myself. I felt I needed to complete the task. I only had this thought in my head—that I need to complete the task.”
In other words, Oleg wasn’t thinking of the final task as suicide, but as a task he must complete. His curator had been all too successful in grooming the youth. Oleg was well-nigh brainwashed.
Lucky for this young man, his parents found his train ticket to Moscow and managed to get Oleg to tell them what was going on. They stopped the boy from carrying out that final Blue Whale Challenge task.
“There is a war, it appears, with the Internet and how it can be used for both helpful purposes and harmful purposes: this is an example of it being harmful. Remember the “trickery” of the harmful—how grooming appears innocent on the outside, but something always feels off on the inside,” says Bahar.
Not everyone is as lucky as Oleg and his parents. Diana Pestov fell off a roof and died. Some weeks later, her parents discovered the girl and several of her friends were in an online “group of death.” Attempting to make their daughter’s death have some purpose, her parents formed a group of volunteers to monitor online conversations and groups and alert police to teens who may be in trouble.
How great a danger is the Blue Whale Challenge? It’s difficult to know or verify. In Russia, there were 720 teen suicides in 2016, up from 461 a year earlier. No one can say whether the surge is due to the Blue Whale Challenge or to other factors, such as alcohol use or depression. But it sure is worrisome.
In the States, teen suicide is the second leading cause of death in teenagers, with only accidents coming in ahead. The last thing America needs is a deadly, secret internet game that culminates in teen suicide. But do we believe it’s real, and happening here?
“It’s a real thing. I lost my sister to it or at least part of it. I would say by the looks of everything we found it’s a major part of it,” says the brother of the girl who died in Atlanta. “And there needs to be awareness, people need to know, parents need to know, to look for signs, to monitor their kids a little better. And try to know and understand who they’re talking to and when.”
Varda Meyers Epstein is a mother of 12, communications writer, and education blogger at the Kars4Kids blog.