Whilst social media can provide an opportunity for many young people to helpfully connect with others and access supports, there are some online behaviours and sites that aren’t as helpful. Such sites can include websites or social media that encourage self-harming, go into detail about ways and means to harm or kill yourself, act as a platform for bullying, or encourage unskilful risk taking behaviour. Given the risks imposed by such sites, it is important we are aware of these influences in our young people’s lives when checking with them about their supports or areas they feel stress them out.
Blue Whale Tale
One site that increases risk is known as The Blue Whale Challenge. The Blue Whale Challenge is a smartphone app and part of an online community based out of Russia. The program targets vulnerable young people by convincing them to engage in a series of tasks aimed at increasing their vulnerability, emotional distress and susceptibility to the influence of others. These include activities such as watching distressing footage, getting up at strange times of the night, and engaging in self-harm, often which requires proof of the act to be sent to the online “curator”. The program culminates after 50 days with the suggestion that the young person should end their life and therefore “win”. The program appears to be increasing in popularity (or has been obtaining more media coverage) in Russia and also the United States, Africa, Asia, Europe and South America. To date, it does not appear that the program is available in New Zealand, but this does not mean that online groups cannot be accessed.
Some of the warning signs that someone is engaging with the program may include;
- References being made to “Blue Whale”, F40, F51 or F58
- Increase in self-harm including cuts on legs and on lips, needle marks on arms
- Being awake at strange hours and increasingly tired during the day
- Increased interest in horror films
- Facetime or skype calls to “new” friends
- Becoming very secretive about what they are doing online
- Becoming angry, distressed or withdrawn after being online
- Posting status’ or images that are increasingly despondent, sad or fatalistic
If you are noticing these signs and are concerned that someone you know then you can take the following steps:
- Ask them directly about how they are feeling, if there is anything that they would like to talk about or if they need some help.
- If they are feeling depressed, anxious, distressed or suicidal, get them help from your local CAMHS service which can be accessed through your local hospital.
- Talk to them about keeping themselves safe and make sure your house is safe
- Remove the app from the young person’s phone and from the download history. Instructions on how to do this for apple devices can be found here and for android here
- Ask the young person to show you their facebook and view the groups they below to. If possible, obtain their password so that you can periodically check in
- Check in on the young person’s Instagram. It may also be useful to ask them if they have more than one account and check all of these.
- Help them to change their privacy settings on their social media so that strangers cannot add them.
- Help them to start new accounts on social media and reassure them that despite what curators say, they cannot harm them with the information they have
- Set boundaries around technology use including not having phones/tablets/computers in the bedroom or after a certain time at night (eg., 9pm). It may be useful to keep the phones in your bedroom to reduce the temptation of sneaking out and accessing them. You may also need to turn off Wifi at night (and change the password daily if necessary)
- You may want to call NetSafe 0508 NETSAFE (0508 638 723) to gather more information about other ways you can help to keep them safe.
- Check out how to set controls on smartphones here
- Other information about cyberbullying can be found here
If you believe someone you know is engaging with the program, and want to talk to them about it, there are somethings to think about. The young people that the program targets are often those feeling disengaged and isolated from their friends and the adults in their lives. For some of these young people, the program may actually initially provide them with a sense of belonging, connectedness and being understood so it may seem important to them. Because of this, it is important to ask them about how they are feeling and about the program in a non-judgemental and supportive way. While you might be extremely worried about panicking, which can lead all of us to lecturing or berating the behaviour, it is important to stay calm, listen and be supportive. Common Ground has some great resources about talking to young people about difficult things which you can access here. Lastly, if you feel like you are unable to discuss this with the young person, then try to find someone else who might be able to such as their school guidance counsellor, local healthcare teams or youth workers, or even their GP.
- Dr Liesje Donkin, Clinical Advisor for Towards Wellbeing