GREENVILLE – A social media game with roots in Russia is beginning to take hold in the United States.
Geared to attract young teens, the game Blue Whale Challenge encourages participants to engage in disturbing behaviors, which lead to self-harm and suicide.
Greenville Middle School administration on May 3 sent home a letter with students informing parents there had been reports of students talking about the deadly challenge.
“Over the last week we started getting calls from parents letting us know about kids who were talking about it,” said principal Chris Mortensen. “We talked to the students whose names had come up to verify nothing was going on.”
Middle school parents also received a One Call Now on May 3, informing them of the challenge and how the school was taking a proactive approach to the issue, Mortensen said.
According to several online reports, the challenge has been linked to several teen suicides in Russia. The challenge is moving into other countries, including India, New Zealand, England, Canada and France.
A May 9 report on the Danbury, Conn. online news source, Danbury Patch, reported on a school there becoming aware of students being targeted by anonymous Blur Whale gamers. The school district also sent home a letter to inform parents of the dangers of the challenge.
The game targets young people who use and visit social media sites and who may endorse specific hashtags or get involved in gaming groups. When a player signs up for the game, they are assigned an “administrator” who provides them with daily tasks to complete for 50 days. The tasks may start out seemingly innocent for a teen – watching a horror movie, for example, but progress to being told to inflict harm on themselves, such as cutting the shape of a whale on their arm. On the 50th day, they are asked to kill themselves. If they back out of the challenge, they are threatened by their administrator who says they possess all the young person’s information and will bring harm to them or their loved ones.
The name for the challenge comes from reports of blue whales becoming beached and dying.
The Greenville Middle School letter says in part:
“It has been brought to our attention that children are discussing this. We are not aware of any GMS students involved in this challenge, but we continue to be vigilant and proactive. We wanted to bring this situation to your attention and encourage family discussions and mentoring of your child’s social media activities.”
Both Mortensen and guidance counselor Tiffany Fine are encouraging parents to take the time to talk about this disturbing challenge with their children.
“We need to be willing to monitor the phone and what they are doing with the computers,” Mortensen said. “It’s just a good idea, even without concerns such as Blue Whale.”
The Greenville Middle School letter also addressed a popular Netflix teen drama series, also geared to young people, called 13 Reasons Why, which tells the story of a young woman who commits suicide. The drama also touches on the topics of rape, bullying, alcohol/drug abuse, and manipulation.
The story 13 Reasons Why is based on a book by the same name, which is used as curriculum for some middle school students – but not in Greenville, says Fine.
“There are some teachable moments in it,” Fine said. “But if someone is reading (or watching) it and they don’t have someone to talk to, it could give students the wrong message.”
Parents and other adults caring for pre-teen and teenagers should be aware of these topics, Fine said, and be willing to ask specific questions such as “How do you feel about it?” “Have you ever experienced being so sad you don’t know what to do?”
Fine said the school will always contact the parent of a child who has demonstrated they have a problem or who is discussing topics such as the Blue Whale Challenge, self-harm or suicide. She encourages parents to be sure to tell their children to tell them or a teacher if they are concerned about a friend.
“I always tell kids when they hear other students talking about self-harm, in whatever form, they are to let an adult know. There’s a lot of pressure to put on their shoulders, to know what to say or what to do,” if a friend asks a fellow student for help. “When I talk to students I explain it’s not tattling to let us know what is going on with their friend.”