Killing children on social media
In March, two Belarusian youngsters attempted to commit suicide while playing a 'game' on the popular Russian social network VK.
Belarusian law enforcement services have initiated two criminal cases, connecting the suicides with a game called ‘blue whale’, especially popular in Russia and Ukraine.
The game consists of 50 dangerous quests which youngsters, threatened by the game's administrators, have to perform in reality.
In other countries, such as Russia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, even more children have committed suicide playing the game. The Main Internal Affairs Directorate has revealed that thousands of Belarusian youngsters have already registered in the dangerous groups and informed schools and parents of the danger.
Nevertheless, a direct correlation between teen suicides and the game remains difficult to draw. The overhyping of the game in the media is not evidence of the game's existence in real life. Under such circumstances, it is important that control of social media does not turn into censorship.
What is the ‘Blue Whale’?
'Blue whale’ has become the code name for a range of dangerous internet pages on the Russian social network VK. These pages and groups appeared on VK in 2015 in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan under the names ‘blue whale’, ‘wake me up at 4:30’, and ‘silent house’.
Allegedly, the groups target youngsters by enticing them to play a game which later involves risky and dangerous tasks which must be performed in reality. The last task is suicide. The game consists of 50 tasks, such as drawing a whale on your arm using a blade or listening to psychedelic music. The game can last from 50 to 57 days and involves personal threats and psychological pressure on youngsters.
The scenario of the game is always similar. Moderators threaten youngsters and demand that they follow their instructions. If the child wants to quit the game, moderators threaten to kidnap their relatives. The media has reported many cases in which parents or friends found children's ‘last note’ and managed to prevent suicides. Recently, a student from Vitsebsk saved the life of her 17-year old friend, who was playing the game and left her last note on her VK page.
Even though the Russian Investigative Committee uncovered the identity of the man who created the ‘game’, the popularity of the ‘blue whale’ only seems to be growing. In 2016, Filipp Budejkin, a Russian national, was accused of inciting 15 young people to suicide over the internet via ‘death groups’. At the same time, media in Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Russia are still reporting an increased number of suicides connected with the game.
Are Dangerous Games Becoming Popular in Belarus?
The number of players in Belarus is on the rise and has already led to several dangerous incidents. TUT.by reports that thousands of Belarusian youths have registered in ‘death group’ on VK. During the last month, investigative committees initiated two criminal cases after two young people in Vitsebsk and Minsk intended to commit suicide playing the game. Two 14 and 15-year old girls in Hrodna ended up in psychiatric care after their participation in the game came to light.
Although the media in Belarus has reacted to the popularity of the ‘death games’, the Belarusian government and security services remain silent. Belarusian rescue services recently encouraged parents to be on the look out due to the increasing number of suicides. However, on the next day, the Ministry of Internal Affairs stated that the suicide rate among young people caused by social media has not risen.
Public awareness about the dangerous game in Belarus is growing. Some schools have sent text messages to parents informing them of the possible danger. Meanwhile, the media aim to conduct their own investigation and gather more information from officials. More and more psychologists are recommending that parents keep track of their children's activities on social media. Several weeks ago, local officials in Hrodna distributed information to all schools and encouraged teachers to conduct parent meetings discussing the possible danger. An investigative committee in Minsk is currently attempting to identify the real identities of the groups’ administrators.
How real is the threat?
Although many Belarusians are alarmed about the danger of ‘death groups’ on VK, some parts of society doubt whether the danger exists at all. An investigation of the influence of social media groups on youth suicides first appeared in the Russian publication Novaya Gazeta. Meanwhile, following a wave of heated discussion, some media outlets believe that the phenomenon is a myth created by the Russian government as an excuse to control social media and the internet. In Kyrgyzstan, authorities have already announced their intention to increase control of the internet.
On 20 March, the vice-speaker of the Russian Duma announced that youth suicide had increased by 57% since last year. However, according to sociologist Evgenii Andreev, the number is most likely fake, as it was announced two months before an annual UNICEF report on suicide statistics. Suicide in Belarus has been falling over the last several years, to 13 suicides among 10-17 year-olds in 2016. The decreasing number of suicides in Belarus provides weak evidence of the existence of ‘death groups’.
The number of 'death group' members on VK also calls the real threat of the game into question. The investigation by Novaya Gazeta has provoked a wave of discussion which could unintentionally widen the popularity of groups with names such as ‘blue whale’ or ‘4:20’. The Belarusian Investigative Committee stated to TUT.by that youngsters themselves are becoming moderators, employing psychological pressure to persuade their peers to commit suicide.
Although the existence of death groups is still under question, law enforcement agencies are attempting to control the situation in Belarus. Recently, the Main Internal Affairs Directorate submitted a list of children registered in dangerous groups to the Ministry of Education. Teachers and school psychologists aim to reach parents to prevent possible suicides. Nevertheless, the investigative committee has yet to clarify any measures taken against moderators and administrators of such groups.
More young people are now becoming active users of social media. There is therefore an urgent need to teach children internet safety. Despite heated debates surrounding the dangerous games, it remains important to maintain a balance between control and censorship. Extended control of social media activity could easily turn into restriction of freedom of speech and intrusion into private life. The precedent was set in 2009 when the government of China restricted access to Facebook and Youtube as a safety measure.