At least two teens in the United States killed themselves in July while playing what media reports describe as an "online suicide challenge" called Blue Whale.
Originating in Russia around 2015, Blue Whale is said to be a game where a despondent teen finds an online curator who assigns them 50 tasks over 50 days. These start as mundane assignments, such as drawing blue whales or making a scrapbook. It then turns into committing physical harm, and ends with the player being told to commit suicide.
The challenge has reportedly claimed victims around the world, and both of the American cases, a 16-year-old girl in Georgia and a 17-year-old boy in Texas, each left behind pictures of completed Blue Whale Challenge tasks. This sent local schools and police departments running to Facebook to post grim warnings about teens tagging each other on social media and goading each other to play.
On the surface, Blue Whale has all the hallmarks of a moral panic similar to other "challenges" that often scared parents, such as the choking game, pharma parties, and the fire challenge. All of these were cases where parents, local authorities, and click-hungry media outlets took either isolated incidents or rumors and turned them into full blown scares, no matter how many people were actually doing them.
Indeed, prominent skeptic Benjamin Radford wrote that Blue Whale shares many traits with classic moral panics, including "modern technology and seemingly benign personal devices as posing hidden dangers to children and teens, the threat [of] some influential evil stranger who manipulates the innocent, and an element of conspiracy theory."
To ascertain whether the two July suicides are isolated incidents or part of a larger trend, it's helpful to examine the origins of Blue Whale. The game appears to have been born in the murky social networks of Russia, where it became a frequent topic of conversation on the popular Russian site VK.
During an investigation to the game's veracity, American news outlet RFE/RL found a complicated tangle where suicidal teens, fake accounts, and trumped-up media stories were impossible to tell apart. Many "players" told the site that they started the challenge out of boredom and gave up after completing just a few tasks, only to be harassed by "curators" who told them they couldn't stop playing.
It's been difficult to pin down how many deaths have occurred in Russia because of Blue Whale, or even if any have occurred at all. An oft-cited report from Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta claimed there were 130 teen suicides from Blue Whale over just a six month period. But RFE/RL reported that "not a single death in Russia or Central Asia has been definitively tied to Blue Whale."
Much of the reporting on the game revolves around its purported "inventor," a former psychology student named Philipp Budeikin. In November 2016, Budeikin was arrested on charges of inciting as many as 15 teens in a Blue Whale "death group" to kill themselves. Despite his lawyer telling RFE/RL that the case was based on newspaper hysterics, Budeikin pleaded guilty in May, claiming his goal was to "cleanse society."
While Blue Whale is unlikely to become a serious problem in the United States (most online challenge games burn out naturally after a short time), it is having the effect of sensationalizing a very real problem in both the United States and Russia. RFE/RL quotes Russian statistics that found 720 minors committed suicide in 2016, and virtually none were linked to anything related to the internet. Suicide rates in the United States are rising as well, with a particular spike among adolescent girls - exactly the age group most susceptible and least equipped to deal with online "suicide challenges."
The hysteria around Blue Whale will subside, but the warning signs of teen suicide will remain the same. Experts say it's crucial for parents to be alert for these signs, monitor social media activity in teens, and keep an open line of communication with their kids.