by Larry Magid
I got a call on Wednesday morning from a Texas radio station about a 15 year-old San Antonio boy who reportedly took his own life as part of the “Blue Whale Challenge.” Although I had heard about the so-called game, I was unfamiliar with the San Antonio case so I did a little digging and found numerous news stories saying that the boy’s parents blame his death on the game, however I did find one story saying that the “San Antonio Police Department has not verified the challenge was a factor” in the boy’s death.
Although I had heard about the so-called game, I was unfamiliar with the San Antonio case so I did a little digging and found numerous news stories saying that the boy’s parents blame his death on the game, however I did find one story saying that the “San Antonio Police Department has not verified the challenge was a factor” in the boy’s death.
While I don’t know all the facts behind this tragic suicide, I have heard from numerous child safety experts who tell me that stories such as “the dangerous game has been linked to at least 130 teen deaths,” as reported in the British tabloid The Sun, are grossly exaggerated. And, it turns out that most of the initial stories about Blue Whale originated as fake news from Russia.
A post by Anne Collier on NetFamilyNews.org quotes an expert from the Bulgarian Safer Internet Center who said that “it is a sensationalist fake started by Russian media back in May 2016,” and that “several Russian politicians already mentioned ‘Western intelligence services’ and ‘Ukrainian nationalists’ as creators of the ‘horrible game’ with the aim to exterminate young Russian generation.”
In the game, according to the BBC “Individuals are said to be given a 50-day set of challenges by an online anonymous “master”. These tasks are said to become increasingly dangerous, from watching horror films all night to self-mutilation and so on.”
In May of this year, Justin Patchin of the Cyberbullying Research Center, wrote, “not a single suicide (nor any harm whatsoever) has been confirmed to be linked to the challenge.” Radio Free Europe reached a similar conclusion in February when it reported, “But while the Russian-language Internet is groaning with profiles of young people playing or seeking to play the game, shocking photographs of self-injury like cutting marked with the game’s hashtags, and purported links to teen suicides, not a single death in Russia or Central Asia has been definitively tied to Blue Whale.”
Fact checking site Snopes.com calls the Blue Whale suicide story “unproven,” saying that it’s “not been found to have directly caused an uptick in young people taking their own lives.”
But I’m still worried because ironically and tragically, those early fake media reports about Blue Whale could morph into a tragic self-fulfilling prophecy for vulnerable youth. The widespread publicity has caused young people to be aware of this challenge and engage in dangerous behavior as well as copy-cat “challenges” like Blue Whale.
“Suicide contagion is real, which is why I’m concerned about it,” Madelyn Gould, a professor of Epidemiology in Psychiatry at Columbia University, told the New York Times. That’s one of the reasons why the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has published media guidelines for journalists who cover suicide.
I agree with Anne Collier’s observation that “misperception (from widespread misinformation) affects behavior – in this particular case, potentially suicidal behavior.” Collier quotes Wesley Perkins, a leading authority on norms research, who wrote “Much if not most of the harm done by negative peer influences occurs through one’s misperception of the norm.” In his 2010 paper, Perkins added, ”This overestimation of problem behavior and the failure of most youth to accurately seesafe,protective, and responsible behavior and attitudes as the norm have harmful consequences — what I call a “reign of error” in adolescent and young adult cultures.”
“Various studies consistently show that positive attitudes and behaviors, though most often the norm among young people in schools and communities, are often not perceived to be the peer norm. Adolescents and young adults tend to believe that risky or problem behaviors and attitudes are most common among peers and think protective responsible action is rare,“ according to the study.
To prove how norms can affect bullying, the researchers created a school campaign with such messages as “Most (4 out of 5) students (at their school) do NOT spread unkind rumors or stories about other students,” and found that once students understood the actual positive peer behavior rather than the perceived bad behavior, they were more likely to practice good behavior.
In today’s media environment, accurate information is more important than ever. The proliferation of “fake news,” not just for political purposes but to spread all sorts of rumors, can easily lead people to believe that harmful behavior is far more “normal” than it actually is. The reality is the overwhelming majority of people – including adolescents – do not go out of their way to harm others or themselves and it’s important that that message be driven home by media, educators, parents and law enforcement. Fake news encourages more harm, while real news about healthy behavior encourages us all to treat ourselves and others with kindness. I recently co-wrote the Parent and Educator Guide to Media Literacy and Fake News.
I don’t know whether “Blue Whale” is real or not, but I do know that unsubstantiated stories, rumors and exaggerations can lead to tragic results.