It starts with something as simple as being asked to watch a horror film. Before you know it, though, the moderator behind your social media challenge makes a 180-degree turn and demands that you start cutting yourself and etching images into your skin.
Threats pour in, too: if you don’t finish the challenge, something even worse could happen to you. But the final task of all is beyond any threat that a person behind a keyboard could make. You have to take your own life in order to complete the Blue Whale game.
This is the social media challenge that is now being taken up around the world, leaving shock, despair, sadness and unanswered questions in its wake. As it makes more headlines, more people want to see what the Blue Whale challenge is like. And doing so can lead even the most resilient of people down a slippery slope.
There’s no clear date that marks the start of the Blue Whale game, but Sky News stated in July 2017 that it started in Russia “several years ago.” And it has since spread to Ukraine, Estonia, Brazil, Kenya, Argentina and even the United States. Moreover, it’s believed that at least 130 players of the game have died in Russia alone.
In most cases, the game requires participants to complete 50 tasks, and some reports claim that each of them must also be videotaped. These start innocently, as described above, and include actions such as watching a horror film. Things escalate quickly, though, with tasks involving body mutilation giving way to the final one: suicide.
The name “Blue Whale” is interesting in and of itself. Some believe that it comes from a track by a Russian rock band called Lumen. The song’s lyrics ask the question, “Why scream when no one hears what we’re talking about?”
Others claim that it is simply a reference to the way in which blue whales occasionally beach themselves. Individual whales do this intentionally in order to end their suffering from injuries, illnesses or genetic mutations. Group beachings also occur and, much like the reasons behind the popularity of this online game, experts have a hard time determining why.
Still, it’s difficult even for inquisitive minds to find a Blue Whale group doling out tasks. A Russian teen named Oleg Kapaev heard about the game and spent “several days” searching online before he found a challenge to join, according to Sky News.
Kapaev told the U.K. news channel that the challenge quickly took a gruesome turn, with the group’s moderator demanding, “Tell me how you want to die.” “They start psychologically manipulating you,” he added. “It is very professionally done. You become a bit of a zombie.”
Kapaev went into the challenge unsure how anyone would go along with the moderator’s requests. But after enlisting in the group and completing task after task, he found himself exhausted and confused. So when his moderator told him that he was a great “player” and that he could feel “happier faster” by jumping from a 20-story building in Moscow for his ninth task, Kapaev was determined to follow through.
He explained his dedication to the game to Sky News. “I didn’t feel like I needed to kill myself, I felt I needed to complete the task,” Kapaev said. “I only had this thought in my head – that I need to complete the task.”
Fortunately for Kapaev, his parents were paying attention. They found their son had booked a ticket to Moscow and subsequently read a disturbing string of suicidal posts on his social media. They raced to contact authorities in the Russian capital, who then found the boy before he could take that fateful leap. His mother Olga had a warning for other parents out there, “It’s not a game. It’s a game of death.”
Not every player is as lucky as Kapaev, though. Angela and Jorge Gonzalez from San Antonio, Texas, saw no signs that their son, 15-year-old Isaiah, was suicidal. The child who they knew was cheerful and thoughtful. “Every day, he was making everybody smile,” his mother told News 4 San Antonio.
But Gonzalez somehow became involved with the Blue Whale challenge, his parents claim. His father couldn’t understand why Isaiah, who had just joined a training program for aspiring military officers, would participate. “[Blue Whale] talks about satanic stuff and stuff like that,” Jorge said. “My son was never into that.”
But Isaiah nonetheless found himself taking part in a Blue Whale challenge. Although there are no firm reports of how many tasks he completed, his sister Alexis reiterated that participants do receive threats if they don’t do what they’re told to by moderators.
Isaiah reached the end of his challenge in July 2017, when his family members found him dead on a Sunday morning. He had committed suicide. In the aftermath of his passing, his sister was struggling to find a reason for her brother’s tragic death. “It wasn’t his time to go,” she said. “He was way too young. He had his whole life ahead of him.”
As for Isaiah’s parents, Angela and Jorge hoped they could spread the word and warn others whose children might try to participate in Blue Whale. They said that popular social media sites such as Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram were often an entry-point for participants.
Angela and Jorge consequently encouraged other parents to regularly check their children’s social media accounts and phones for signs of involvement in Blue Whale or other dangerous activities. And a boy in Atlanta, Georgia, whose sister also died because of the game in 2017 agreed.
“There needs to be awareness. People need to know, parents need to know, to look for signs, to monitor their kids a little better,” he told CNN. “And try to know and understand who they’re talking to and when.”
But because internet trends shift so regularly, mental health experts suggest that parents should take a broader approach than just talking to their kids about Blue Whale. Dr. Jane Pearson of the National Institute of Mental Health told CNN, “Instead of trying to catch every trend, a better approach might be to improve social media literacy to help kids understand how to manage it.” Isaiah Gonzales’s sister, Scarlett, had a similar message. “Talk to your Children!” she said in an interview with Heavy.com. “Your friends, anyone. Please, just make sure they’re okay.”