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.
NSPCC – Staying 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.