Canberra parents have been urged to be on the alert for warning signs that their teenagers have become involved with a dangerous social media suicide game linked to 130 teen deaths in Russia.
Known as ‘Blue Whale’, the game reportedly challenges teenagers to complete daily tasks for 50 days such as watching horror movies all day, self-harming and waking up at strange times so that they are sleep-deprived. On the 50th day, the teenagers are allegedly instructed to suicide.
There have been no public reports of the game being followed in Australia but there are fears of it spreading around the globe with police reportedly issuing warnings in places such as Europe and America.
Lifeline Canberra CEO Carrie-Ann Leeson told The RiotACT that the core message for parents is “to be alert but not alarmed”.
“The role and the responsibility of the community in these instances is a clear one and a hopeful one. It’s about being alerted to these risks but not alarmed,” Ms Leeson said.
“It’s up to us as individuals, as a community and as friends to remain vigilant. Research is not keeping up with the risk.”
Ms Leeson encouraged concerned parents to undertake courses such as those provided by Lifeline Canberra which help them to start a conversation with their children and are effectively a form of “suicide first aid”. Interested people can phone Lifeline’s training section on 6171 6300 for more information.
Ms Leeson said that there are signs to look out for that parents need to respond to.
“Quite often there is a change in behaviour or conversation, or the communication of an individual through social media. People look to give possessions away or to rehouse pets,” Ms Leeson said.
“These things are invitations to ask questions like ‘are you having suicidal thoughts?’.”
Ms Leeson said that if there is a risk of suicide then people should act immediately.
“Ring Lifeline or call an ambulance. It’s no different to having a heart attack,” she said. “If there is a risk involved or if there is a weapon then call 000.”
According to news reports from earlier this week, Russian police have arrested a Moscow man who has allegedly confessed to being the administrator of the ‘Blue Whale’ game. However, it is believed that there is likely to be more people involved.
Cyber security expert Susan McLean last month told ABC Radio’s AM Program that the ‘Blue Whale’ game poses a real threat to vulnerable children.
“It’s almost like the grooming of a sexual predator. So, the child becomes so engrossed in what the concept is that they only see what this person wants them to do as the correct thing,” she said.
“In this, ultimately, you’re given a series of challenges that you are expected to do to be part of this community and fit in. And then the ultimate one at the end is that you are to kill yourself.”
Easy to get an online audience
When asked by The RiotACT, Ms Leeson was at a loss to explain why anyone would put together something like the ‘Blue Whale’ challenge but said that “clearly these individuals are playing the numbers” – targeting millions in the hope of hooking a small number to the game.
Canberra-based cybercrime expert Adjunct Professor Nigel Phair told The RiotACT that creating something online with criminal intent or which is designed to exploit people is easy to do, whether it be a game like the ‘Blue Whale’ one, an investment scam, a romance scam or something else.
“With anything online, accessibility is the easiest part of it. The barrier to entry to create something online with criminal intent is really low and it is really easy to do,” said Mr Phair, who is Director of the Centre for Internet Safety at the University of Canberra.
“It’s very easy to get an audience. If I do something online and exploit people, the world is my oyster,” he said.
Asked whether these criminal or exploitative activities such as the ‘Blue Whale’ suicide game normally occur on the ‘dark’ or ‘deep’ web, Mr Phair said that not everything happens there and that this can actually be more the place you find “scammers scamming scammers”.
“That is the place where a lot of nefarious activities hang out,” he said. “If you want to exploit people you need to go where the people will be.”
Mr Phair said there are many different social media channels that are frequented by teens and may be more likely to be targeted by activities looking to exploit them.
Realise the internet is a public place
In terms of preventing teenagers and others from accessing disturbing games or activities such as the blue whale suicide game, Mr Phair said that “there’s no magic bullet”.
“All people need to realise that when they are on the internet they are just in another public place and they need to act with the same smarts as they would in a public place. We need to act lawfully, ethically and responsibly when online.”
Mr Phair, who is an influential analyst on the intersection of technology, crime and society, emphasised that “parents need to remember they are still a parent” when it comes to online activities.
“Kids and all ages need to be able to put their hand up and say they have had a bad experience. They need to be empowered to do something about it,” he said.
If you are concerned about the mental health of yourself or a loved one, call Lifeline’s 24-hour crisis support line on 13 11 14 or contact Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.
Are you concerned about how easy it is for sick minds to feed off vulnerable young people via social media? The experts have given some good advice but do you feel parenting is keeping pace with the challenges of an online society? If you’re a parent do you have any advice on what works for you?