The Blue Whale game is not as risky as we may fear

Today I was interviewed on Sky News about the risks posed by the Blue Whale game in the UK and about peer pressure facing teenagers. Blue Whale is an online game that originated in Russia and where it is claimed users are manipulated into self harming and ultimately encouraged to commit suicide.  This has led some to refer to it as the suicide game. It is feared that up to 130 deaths in Russia are linked to the phenomenon. Also referred to as the “Blue Whale Challenge”, it encourages users to complete a series of tasks over a 50 day period. There are fears that the game’s contagion could spread to the UK with police and teaching bodies issuing warnings about the risks posed by the game.

Whilst not wanting to minimise the danger or to downplay the potential risks I would caution against getting too worried.  The UK is not Russia. There is an absence of social mobility and economic opportunity amongst young Russians (particularly for those outside of elite circles) growing up in a post communist society, and perhaps living in a high rise block from the Soviet era in a grim part of middle Russia. British teenagers do not face anything as dismal in their lives. The suicide rate in Russia is high and Unicef reported in 2011 that the country has the third-highest teen suicide rate in the world. We can’t even be certain that the game actually caused the deaths or that these deaths would have occurred in the absence of the game.

The trouble with setting boundaries around technology more generally is that parents have knowledge of pre internet behaviour. Young people don’t have a baseline behaviour of something other than the internet, its as if it has always been here. Engagement with the internet is not optional for them. For them the internet and specifically social media engagement satisfies prime drives for survival and to affiliate. However, we wouldn’t allow children to go to a public park unsupervised but some teenagers are given unsupervised access to a smartphone, which is essentially a portal to the outside world with high potential for encountering inappropriate material. Most, however, will be fine and will have developed sufficient levels of resilience to cope with cyber bullying or inappropriate suggestibility from others.  But just like with alcohol and food there will be a small proportion who will develop problem behaviour with technology and will be susceptible to manipulation.

Some people might wonder how someone could fall under the spell of something so ridiculous as following the commands of strangers to commit actual self harm. Indeed, others would say that all you need to do is switch off the computer if being bullied online.  This is a little simplistic. The teenagers who are selected for cyber bullying are often vulnerable and are, therefore, at greater risk of being manipulated and exploited. Teenagers often worry about their appearance, their weight and whether they are cool and so can be vulnerable to being bullied. They often seek approval from others to satisfy their feelings of esteem. Children who suffered disorganised attachment whilst growing up are particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

The sinister aspect to the Blue Whale game is that other teenagers are also recruited by the gang leaders to select and recruit the most vulnerable users, called masterminders. The kids who create the peer pressure are often frightened and lost themselves and they seek strength in groups. We see this quite commonly as a feature of teenage gang violence in our cities. The even more sinister aspect is that some of the Russian gang leaders behind the game, and who referred to getting rid of ‘biological waste’, received love letters from teenagers after being locked up.

Whilst I have downplayed the risks associated with the Blue Whale game in the UK I would, nevertheless, suggest that parents remain vigilant about the risks presented by this and other online games. They can become more proactive in the active monitoring of their children’s web usage. Parents should keep lines of communication open with their children as they will need someone, who they can trust,  to turn to if they encounter any problems online, or in the real world for that matter. The key is to try to help them achieve a balanced level of engagement with technology and to ensure that their activity takes place within a safe environment. They can learn to say no and to only share information and content that they are comfortable with. Try to agree terms and conditions with your child around appropriate device time and above all don’t allow devices in their bedroom.

See also

NSPCCStaying safe online
Childline – Call them free on 0800 1111 or get in touch online. 
See also some related articles:
Do you have a problem overusing your smartphone
Digital detox from smartphone addiction
How to digitally detox and stay connected 

For anyone affected by the issues in this article, you can contact the Samaritans in the UK or call 116 123. Calls are free.

 
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There’s No Place like Phone

Noel Bell Channel 5 newsThe sixth annual Deloitte report There’s No Place like Phone, which analyses the mobile usage habits of more than 4,000 UK consumers, was released today.

The report was covered widely across the national media. Channel 5 News covered the story on their main news and spoke to consumers, journalists and myself about the issue. See below for the embedded link to the news item (I spoke briefly at 1:03).

The UK public has never been more ‘addicted’ to smartphones, according to the survey. The report uses June 2016 as a foundation to claim that four out of five UK adults (81%) have a smartphone. This percentage rises to 90% when the 18-24 year olds cohort is reviewed.

The key findings of the report are:

  • Nearly 50% of the age group 18-24 check their device in the middle of the night.
  • The adoption rate of 4G usage has more than doubled in the past 12 months (up from from 25% to 54%).
  • 31% of those smartphone users surveyed did not make any traditional voice calls in a given week. (This contrasts with 25% in 2015, and just 4% in 2012).
  • The majority of those who participated have downloaded 20 or fewer apps.

The word ‘addiction’ is difficult for many clinicians in the medical world. Strictly speaking it is a misnomer to call even heavy smartphone usage an addiction. Psychiatrists recognise Gambling Disorder as the only behavioural (non-substance related) addiction. Their bible is the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM), the American Psychiatric Association (APA) diagnostic tool, currently in its 5th iteration, and does not include smartphone usage as a problem. Internet Gaming Disorder is, though, listed in section 3 of DSM-5 as “conditions for further study”. However, in common with other behavioural problems like sex addiction, counsellors and therapists have lots of anecdotal evidence that alludes to a growing problem of preoccupation and obsession.

If you think you have a behavioural problem with your smartphone take a look at whether you identify with some of the points to consider in the need for digital detox and how to set boundaries around your engagement with technology.

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Digital detox from smartphone addiction

ofcom-logoThe latest Ofcom research into internet usage informs us that fifteen million UK internet users have taken steps to ‘digitally detox’ in an attempt to establish a more healthy balance between technology and ‘real life’. The Communications Market 2016 (August) is Ofcom’s thirteenth annual Communications Market report.  The key findings from the latest report found that roughly one in three of adult internet users has specifically sought a period of time offline. For those unfamiliar with Ofcom, they are the communications regulator in the UK (similar to the Federal Communications Commision in the USA).

Noel Bell ITV Good Morning BritainITV’s Good Morning Britain featured the story in their edition yesterday and invited me onto the show to talk about addiction to smartphones and digital detox. They also invited a family who had undertaken an experiment of having dinner but only communicating by messaging around the dinner table as an attempt to understand how we miss out on social cues by engaging exclusively by electronic means.

I am often asked what constitutes addiction.  For me, addiction is a serious bad habit, can be highly condensed, reinforced and consolidated across many neural networks. Fear is a huge factor in all addictions and every addiction has a stress factor. Addiction can be present when you are doing something repeatedly and negative effects start to occur in other areas of your life. You find it very difficult to cut down the activity when you seek to regulate the behaviour. But according to the medical view, Gambling disorder is the only behavioural (non-substance related) addiction, as it’s the only one included in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM), currently in its 5th iteration.  DSM is how psychiatrists diagnose ‘mental disorders’. As an aside, pathological gambling had long been considered by the American Psychiatric Association to be an ‘impulse control disorder’, rather than an addiction. Internet gaming disorder (psychiatrists just love to pathologize with words like disorder, don’t they?) is, however, listed in section 3 of DSM-5 as “conditions for further study”. So, presumably there may be room for smartphone addiction in future iterations of the Manual.

How do you know if you have a problem with mobile devices?

Here are a few general questions you could explore about your relationship with your smartphone:

  • Do you use your smartphone more than you are comfortable with?
  • Do you panic when there is no cell coverage or wifi connection?
  • Do you neglect social interaction with friends and family by spending excessive amounts of time on your device?
  • Do you use your smartphone to gamble and spend more time (and money) than you had planned?
  • Do you sext with strangers and regret it afterwards?
  • Have you been the victim of revenge porn?
  • Do you compulsively use adult chat rooms, even when you don’t want to?
  • Do you start to feel lonely or depressed as a result of excessive engagement with social media?
  • Do you bring your phone to bed?
  • Do you feel increasingly stressed from feeling the need to answer work emails beyond the contracted work hours?
  • Is your sleep disturbed from excessive smartphone usage?
  • Do you spend excessive time on dating apps?
  • Do you lose interest in having sex with your partner?

You may have a problem if you are finding it more difficult to concentrate on daily tasks at home or at work, if you are concealing the amount of time spent on mobile devices, if you have a fear of missing out (FoMo) and have a sense of dread or panic if you leave your phone at home. Common withdrawal symptoms from smartphone addiction are anger/irritability, restlessness, sleep problems, difficulty concentrating and craving access to your device.

Treatment options

We all need to use online services from statutory services so a complete abstinence based approach is problematical. Indeed we need to be online to progress in careers and to connect with people. However, we can take steps to reduce our reliance on our devices. We can try to set goals for device-free times. We can set our phones to airplane mode during the day and especially at night. We can try to avoid reading work emails beyond certain times,as well as turning devices off two hours before sleep so we comply with sleep hygiene requirements.

If you think you have a problem, you could also consider not bringing mobile devices to bed and removing social media apps from phones. Maybe you could try to refrain from the constant checking of social media updates. See how you cope. If you begin to feel empty, moody and depressed as a result of putting in boundaries you could be experiencing a form of withdrawal.

Considering doing these steps might tell you all you need to know. How does it feel to potentially implement some of these suggestions? Does it seem reasonable or do these suggestions fill you with dread?

Seeing a therapist can be useful to motivate you to set boundaries with your mobile device usage and to address problem behaviour. You could explore what is behind your intense need to feel connected and learn to cope better with everyday anxiety. Therapy could be a means of building your coping skills to better help you to deal with boredom, rejections, loneliness and worry. There can, of course, be underlying issues with depression which might be worth exploring so it may be appropriate to go and see your GP too.

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