I was first made aware of the 'Blue Whale game' when a concerned parent posted on Facebook a letter that she'd seen from a local school, warning parents about the 'Blue Whale game', which was apparently the cause of hundreds of suicides of young people in Russia, which was on its way to the UK. A second school in my area, then a third sent out the same kind of warning, and another in Basildon also sent letters to parents, based on a discussion with Essex police. The BBC have posted their own article about it, and it's been mentioned in a variety of newspapers, such as the Daily Mail, The Daily Mirror, The Sun and The Metro. The headlines are worrying, to say the least.
"‘Blue Whale’ suicide game linked to 130 teen deaths makes its way to UK",
"Police and schools in chilling warning of ‘Blue Whale’ suicide game that is feared to be heading for the UK and is linked to teen deaths"
"Social media suicide game blamed for deaths of 100 children as parents warned to be vigilant."
"Police warn Blue Whale 'suicide' Facebook game linked to 130 teen deaths in Russia is heading to the UK"
You'll notice that the stories are already inconsistent - 100 or 130? Children or teenagers? My first thought is to head to Snopes and see what they have to say. Their conclusion so far is that it's 'unproven', which isn't as clear cut as Fake, but I'll explain why shortly. Before we get into the nitty gritty, let's take a step back and look at the situation in Russia.
Child suicide in Russia.
To be honest, it's bleak. According to Suicide.org Russia has one of the highest suicide rates in the world; their list of international suicide rates places Russia at #3 behind Luthuania and Belarus. The UK is #62. The number of suicides per 100,000 by age group in Russia is 25.8 for the age group 15-24, and in 2012 the rate of teenage suicide was three times higher than the world average. (The links go to the WHO and the New York Times). According to the Russian government, 720 minors committed suicide in 2016. Authorities say the main causes are unrequited love, family problems, and mental-health issues. Lack of opportunity and widespread alcoholism and drug abuse are cited as contributing factors. Only 0.6 percent have any connection to the Internet or social media. Interestingly however, articles about the suicides often refer to the fact that they come from happy and stable homes. This may well be true, but on the other hand, it's a far more interesting story, and gives credence to 'victim status' rather than saying that they've killed themselves because of a miserable and difficult home life. However you cut it though, child suicide in Russia is far from uncommon. The Daily Mail for example called them 'happy and normal'.
Many of the articles refer to young girls who have killed themselves, and there's no doubt that they have actually committed suicide, either by jumping off tall buildings or by walking in front of a train. However, it's at this point when things start to get very confused. There is reference to a teenager Rina Palenkova, (or Renata Kambolina or Rita Palenkova) aged 17 who ran in front of a train in November 2015 and the Daily Mirror states “Police said she had problems with her boyfriend”. Numerous newpapers refer to two girls who have committed suicide by falling to their deaths from a 14 storey apartment block, Yulia Konstantinova, 15, and Veronika Volkova, 16. However, there are questions over the reasons for their suicides; they had been posting depressed and suicidal thoughts to their social media accounts. What is clear is that I haven't found a single account that can categorically be laid at the door of the Blue Whale game. Not a single one. Newspaper reports are very vague with their terminology 'investigators claim', 'some parents claim' and so on, but nothing substantiated.
However, it's very clear that something has been going on in Russia. A May 2016 story from the Russian site Novaya Gazeta reported dozens of suicides of children in Russia during a six-month span, asserting that some of the people who had taken their lives were part of the same online game community on VK.com, a social media network based out of St. Petersburg, Russia. Novaya Gazeta reported that “at least” eighty of the suicides were linked to these “blue whale” games, but an investigation by Radio Free Europe found that no suicides had been definitively linked to these online communities. Specifically “not a single death in Russia or Central Asia has been definitively tied to Blue Whale”. The Daily Mail wrote an article based on this story in May 2016, asserting that the children were part of the same online game community on VK.com a social media network based out of St Petersburg. It's worth stressing here that an online game community is not the same as playing a specific game. On November 16th Philipp Budeikin, (or Filipp Budeykin) a 21 year old was detained on organising 8 social network groups between 2013-16 to ‘promote suicide’, but again, this isn't related to a specific game.
Recent news items
Coming up to date the idea that it's a game which has caused these suicides has resurfaced. Daily Mail published a story on 26 April, which was basically a rehash of the one they published almost a year earlier. Interestingly there is a picture of a whale supposedly cut into an arm, with a copyright to The Siberian Times, but the image isn’t on the Siberian Times website at all. I've not seen any other images, and I'm doubtful that it's actually real; it's very easy to fake an arm cutting. I would have thought that if hundreds of children have been involved with this 'game' there would be many more images than a single one. The TES published an article on the 25th April which is quite frankly laughable in its ineptitude. They make reference to "A descriptive account of the game, posted to a forum dedicated to creepypasta – horror stories and urban legends intended to scare readers – suggests that the master always knows whether or not the tasks have been accomplished." The 'forum' is actually the name of the person who posted a story, and his posting history is all about murders, suicides and death. Far from being a definitive account it's an amateur piece of fiction. The article goes on to make other vague and unsubstantiated claims. "A spokesman for Hertfordshire constabulary told the Cambridge News that it had sent the following message to schools: “The challenge is believed to be spreading across Europe" and "Thames Valley Police have had three suicides recently that are believed linked to this." There is no evidence and no proof. To be fair however, they do say "However, the myth-busting website Snopes says that links between the Blue Whale game and teenage suicides in Russia remain unproven. It states: “It is more reasonable to assume that depressed or suicidal teenagers are simply drawn to the same social media groups, not that the groups were causing them to commit suicide.”
There has been mention made of the role of local police forces. David Wright, deputy headteacher at Woodlands School in the Essex town of Basildon wrote in his letter to parents " “We have discovered a game through the police that we think you should be aware of… It is called the Blue Whale game and is played via many social-media platforms." Now, I have asked Mr Wright for information on which social media platforms, because there's no evidence that I've yet found to substantiate that claim. Interestingly I contacted the media department of Essex Police and they told me that they have been 'made aware' of the dangers of the game. However, when pressed they absolutely refused to give me any more information. They would not say who had told them, or what - if any - evidence they had. I then asked why they were making such unsubstantiated claims, and they denied they were unsubstantiated, but they refused to actually substantiate them. Quite why any police force is going out and warning schools about something and then refusing to back up their claims is puzzling, at the very least!
The Blue Whale game itself
To start with, it's not a game. You can't buy it, download it or install it. It's not an app either. The idea is that you are contacted by, or request to be contacted by a 'curator' who provides a pre-set list of 50 tasks, to be completed once per day. The only place that I've been able to find a copy of the list is a picture of text written in Lithuanian. The two that are making most headlines are "11. Carve a whale on your hand with a razor and send it to the curator" and "50 Jump off a high building". Others include getting up at 4.20am (a reference to cannabis) and watching scary movies, listen to music that 'they' send you and 'talk to a whale'. So the idea that children can innocently start to play this game are entirely false, and the game reference isn't helpful at all. It gives entirely the wrong message to the general public, which leads to fear and suspicion. The 'blue whale' reference has been explained in a number of different ways, but the most obvious is that whales sometimes beach themselves in a deliberate act of suicide. One of the girls who jumped off a building also left a last image of a blue whale on her Instagram account, but once again, that's circumstantial at best as a link to any 'game'.
It would appear that Brazil seems to have become the latest 'hotspot' for news items on Blue Whale. I've read several of the articles, and they are all very similar to those that have been written before, down to the same phrases, so I suspect that there's a lot of lazy cut and paste journalism going on. One news article reports on a 16 year old girl who drowned, but there's once again no proof that she was a victim of this 'game'. The deputy chief of police said "We will first check the existence of this game and if there was inducement, instigation or assistance to the suicide or if it was a deliberation of the victim itself.If there is a group of which she participated, we will trace the members that may have some relation with the event , Those responsible will be identified and will be criminally liable for the act. If they are adolescents, they will respond to the infraction" (Apologies for the English - this came from an auto translation by Google). In another reported suicide the article isn't clear on the reason why a child committed suicide "We have had two cases confirmed, and the case we investigated was initially discarded because there was no involvement with the game" according to a member of the Internet Crime Repression Office. In the past month, the Citizens’ Rights Regional Attorney has got Google toe to remove eleven videos that encouraged young people to self-mutilate or even commit suicide. However, the MPF, (Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office (Ministério Público Federal)) however, has not yet opened an investigation against the game Blue Whale.
Real or a hoax?
Snopes isn't exactly sitting on the fence here with it's 'unproven' claim. Because we're dealing with things that happen in Russia it's always going to be far more difficult to definitively prove that there isn't a causal link between a game that may or may not exist and the suicide of Russian children in a country that has a very high suicide rate. Snopes is always going to err on the side of caution, so it's not a surprising decision on their part. Snopes does say "There is certainly reason to be concerned about groups that venerate and promote suicide, but the creator of the “Sea of Whales” community (on the Russian social network) said that he had no interest in encouraging people to take their own lives. Rather, the group’s creator says that they created the game and the surrounding lore to drive traffic to the page". Any publicity that provides traffic to a group or site is usually seen as good publicity, so if you're wondering why anyone would make up a story about a 'game' of this nature, that's one obvious reason.
The Net Family News website (tech intelligence for parents) is less cautious than Snopes. They say "It’s truly fake – a textbook example of how misinformation about online harm can itself be harmful." The Bulgarian Safer Internet Centre is also highly critical of the news stories. The point is also made by Georgi Apostolov of the Centre that there has only been one arrest (of Philipp Budeikin) and that was related to user communities, not a 'Blue Whale game'. An investigation by Radio Free Europe that found that no suicides had been definitively linked to these [“guru”-led] online communities.
Russia’s long-running daily newspaper Izvestia ran an investigative piece on the Blue Whale game. It's in Russian, but if you use the Chrome browser, you can have it translated. Their journalists found that there were indeed thousands of hashtag references to the game, but that these had been created in the main by bots, NOT real human beings. The head of the Regional Public Center of Internet Technologies (ROCIT) Sergei Grebennikov, explained the prevalence of suicidal hashtags which were produced by people. They were created by three types of users; people who want to be in the trend of the game in the "blue whale" to try and see what tasks to perform. Second - the creators of advertising campaigns who would try and get people to give children tasks such as clicking on a link or downloading an app - not in an effort to self harm, but to make money for the advertisers. The final group were people who are simply interested in the dissemination of information and wanted to see how many people were involved, what they were doing and so on - researching, essentially. Grebennikov also said that the media publicised about 15 cases of suicide which they claimed were as a result of games like "Blue whale", but none of them had been proved.
I also spent some time looking at YouTube videos about the Blue Whale game. These were virtually all sensationalist with no useful information at all. Several of them included video of suicides taking place, but in every single one that I looked at it was easy to see that they had been faked. A child would be about to jump from a roof, the camera would move away, the sound of a scream would be heard, the camera would pan back to show no child, but also no jump either; very easy for a child to run back and scream at the same time. In another video viewers were informed that an image was available of the young woman who killed herself by jumping under a train, but the 'body' was clearly that of a dummy, the clothing and hair colour was different, the head was very neatly placed on the other side of the rail, there was no blood and so on. Amateur in the extreme.
One of the things that really concerns me is the amount of scaremongering that's taking place. Schools are frightening parents based on - as far as I can tell - sensationalist press coverage based on misinterpreted newspaper articles. Essex Police, while encouraging schools to frighten parents are not prepared to provide information on who they have got their information from, or even a single piece of evidence to show this is taking place. The use of the word 'game' is constantly being repeated and is confusing and unhelpful. Serious academic journals such as the TES are reporting incorrectly and in a sensationalist way. Yet this is nothing new. In 2007 'at least 16 young people' had committed suicide after visiting pro-suicide chat rooms. You can even go back to the 1980s with the great panic over the game Dungeons and Dragons with overblown claims that it resulted in Satanic worship, murder and suicide. What's dangerous is the panic, not what the panic is about. In 1990 there was a case in Rochdale in which around twenty children were removed from their homes by social services who alleged the existence of Satanic Ritual Abuse after discovering 'Satanic indicators'. No evidence was found of Satanic apparatus, and charges were dismissed when a court ruled the allegations were untrue. However by then it was too late and the damage was done.
What should you do?
Ask your school for evidence of the claims that they are making, go to the police and ask for instances where this game is being played. Ask the head teacher to be specific about which social networks are being used. Demand evidence and proof to back up these claims. Schools are responsible for the safety, both physical and mental of the children in their care. The more they simply send out knee-jerk scaremongering letters to parents which have no basis in fact, the less they will be trusted, and the one time when there IS a problem it may well be too late, since the school cried wolf once too often.
The real concern that I have is that it's far too easy to use something like this 'game' to hide real fears and real concerns over the mental well being of children. Parents absolutely should talk to their children about how they are, what they're doing, if they're being bullied and so on, but this 'game' simply steers conversations off onto the wrong track. Talk about reality, get involved with their online lives, friend them on Facebook, share jokes on Instagram, collaborate with them on SnapChat and so on. Be part of their lives, and take real things seriously, and leave hoaxes and sensationalist press coverage where it belongs - in the gutter. Your children are worth more.