‘Blue Whale’ cuts short lives in India

J.Vignesh was 19 when he was found hanging with the image and words of the blue whale on his forearm. One of his friends said, “Vignesh was always very cheerful. His house had been our hangout for many days in the last few years”. A family struck by an unimaginable tragedy. In order for Vignesh to continue his studies, his elder brother had dropped out of school and took up a job at a textile shop. The culprit believed to be a bad and dangerous internet phenomenon.

A game that’s called the “Blue Whale Challenge”; that is believed to have its origins in Russia may have claimed the life of Vignesh and many others in India and around the world. The internet can be place for good and bad. An endless void filled with the voices, issues, media and opinions of millions. Nishant Shah, a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore, in the Indian Express writes on the dangers of the internet –

“When it comes to the connected web, the youth don’t have the comfort of this buffering adult, who might guide, protect and direct them in difficult situations. The lives of digital natives are so new that most elders in their life do not have a sense of what is happening there.”

“On the one hand, they are being subjected to incredible risks of bullying, exposure, manipulation and coercion by strangers on the web. On the other hand, they know that their teachers, parents or mentors are going to be useless in giving productive advice.”

It’s a game where a group of people provide a number of tasks to be completed in 50 days; the last of which is committing suicide. Throughout the challenge the participants are asked to share photos as proof of the tasks being completed.

The victims of such a heinous internet invention are teenagers. Young impressionable boys and girls going down the rabbit hole of forums, chat rooms, messaging boards etc only to be lured by a ‘game’. This so called game does not allow participants to withdraw once they begin claiming the ‘administrators’ will find them in real life if they fail to comply.

The Indian Express editorial called the blue whale challenge a ‘mirror to a tumultuous time’ –

“The Blue Whale is a mirror to a tumultuous time. It reveals our ambivalence about technology and social media, which have never before shaped the intimacies of human life to this extent.”

“It reveals a crisis of societies in the throes of dizzying, incomprehensible social and political change. It reflects a longing for a more innocent time, when teenagers stayed home and watched state television — or, best of all, deferred to parental authority to discern the good from the predatory”.

A first person account provides a stark and disturbing insight into the mind of someone who undertakes the blue whale challenge. A 22 year old from Karaikal in Tamil Nadu appealed to people to not engage in it calling it “a virtual death trap”. After receiving the link through a WhatsApp group, he says the tasks were first started out as posting personal details and photos which were collected by the admin.

He said, “I went to the Akkaraivattam graveyard around midnight, took a selfie and posted it…every day I had to watch horror movies alone, as the idea was to make victims shun fear”. Noticing a change in behavior his brother Ajith stepped in and informed the police and rescued him as he was about to carve the image of a whale into his arm. Though he is stable now, he warns, “It is a virtual death trap… You will go through an agonizing experience… Even those who seek adventures will be mentally affected”.

The Times of India editorial stated that the blue whale challenge exposes the socio- psychological vulnerabilities in teenagers –

“The gadgetry that’s such a defining part of their life today also brings with it constantly morphing dangers, which are very difficult for parents to track 24×7. The Blue Whale Challenge, which has been linked to teenage deaths from Russia to America, is a peril that’s come to attention in India”.

The editorial points out the IT Ministry’s step to direct the internet giant such as Google and Facebook to remove links to the game is warranted but doesn’t go far enough –

“This is necessary, but will not go far enough to correct the social predicament that underlies why some children may participate in such deadly online games. For one, there will remain corners of the internet where such dangers will still lurk. Two, many young people were being pushed to suicide even before the existence of such games”.

The Bombay High Court while hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) on directions to stop the blue whale game said the courts and state governments cannot provide the answers for everything and put the onus on parents. The bench said, “You want the government to keep a check on the children when the parents can’t”, insisting the task rests with the parents.

Meanwhile, state governments and law enforcement are taking action. On Thursday, the Gujarat government announced a reward of Rs.1 lakh on information that might lead to the curator of the blue whale challenge. The state has also issued guidelines to police to carry out criminal procedures against such users of the game and those who are promoting it.

“It’s important to teach our kids that life’s not a game where you will get to restart again” #InternationalLiteracyDay #BlueWhaleChallenge pic.twitter.com/7BNmsfKlLb

— Delhi Police (@DelhiPolice) 8 September 2017

The Noida police urged parents to monitor their child’s internet usage and social media accounts as a precaution. The Chennai police also issued a similar notice to parents. After the death of the boy in Karaikal, Puducherry police have been directed to take action against those spreading the links to the game.

The Union Minister for Women and Child Development, Menaka Gandhi, issued a letter late last month to all school principals on the issue of the blue whale challenge.

Smt. @Manekagandhibjp has issued a letter to all school principals to sensitize teachers & students about #BlueWhaleChallenge. 2/3 pic.twitter.com/80W5BXM0iT

— Ministry of WCD (@MinistryWCD) 31 August 2017

In the piece in the Indian Express by Nishant Shah, he offers a few suggestions on how to move forward – adults being a part of the digital world so that they better understand the problems; learning with the younger generation by asking for advice and to troubleshoot together to better understand the nuances and complexities to the best of one’s abilities.

More columns by Varun Sukumar

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