The Blue Whale Suicide Challenge: How Parents Can Guide Children Away from Internet Tragedies

A tragic internet challenge aimed at teenagers and young adults is a call for parents to pay closer attention to their children’s online activities.

You may have recently read about the "blue whale suicide " game. Begun in Russia and spreading throughout the globe, the “50-day challenge" asks an individual, usually a teenager, to proceed through a series of challenges. Over the course of 50 days the individual is systematically brainwashed. "I'll show you mine if you show me yours" becomes "Jump, now."

It is alleged that more than ten dozen suicides were linked to this horrific "game” (two in the U.S.) that has the astounding ability to psychologically manipulate the vulnerable. Even one who might not otherwise be considered at risk could be affected. In psychology, we call it desensitization and deindividuation, but most people know it as brainwashing. It is psychological abuse, incredibly effective, particularly for minds in transition like adolescents.

The key to protecting children online comes first in understanding lifelong development, and second in understanding the role adults have in imparting culture and values. Our strategies for protecting kids must go deeper than simply setting a time limit on screen use or knowing our kids’ passwords.

As a clinical psychologist, researcher on ethics and technology, and as a parent, I see the impact of media exposure on children and families. Much less common are conversations about conveying family value systems.

We know that childhood development begins with knowledge, followed by ability, and then the application of sound judgment to that ability. For example, when we teach toddlers to walk, they may still waiver about how to use their newly developed skills, say to cross a busy road.

Likewise, we need to consider our slightly older children and their use of the internet and smart phones. Heck, we should question their need for a smart phone. (Spoiler: children, even most teens don't need them!)

In my home, with children between the ages of five and 19, each knows how to use technology, which may lead them to an endless stream of web content. But, they are not passive in their use and discovery of such. Each is provided, on a daily basis, with guidance about which websites or apps they should use. Even my five-year-old understands that a QR code on a cereal box will lead to an online message; she asks for permission to follow the link.

Every parent should understand how to actively teach children the values and character traits important to their family and how they can use them to guide their own behavior. If you’re not doing this, you’re making a choice to allow the lowest common online denominator to convey values for you, ones you may oppose.

Even as they get older, we need to talk to our kids about what's true or false, real or imagined, what to question or accept. They need to be guided about what’s important to disclose or keep safe.

If we feel integrity and ethics are important, that it’s critical to recognize the value of mercy, to embrace empathy, that people should be treated fairly, that some causes are worth standing up for, then it's on us to have those conversations with our children.

Additionally, we need to impart the tools to actively critique what they confront online, so they can think critically and closely examine the sources, intent, and impact of technology.

As with most lessons, these discussions need to be reiterated and should occur while parents are fully engaged and present – not on their own smart phones. (Setting an example is just as important as conversation.)

A valuable and protective media literacy education shows children purpose and need for boundaries, etiquette and civility, and teaches how to properly consume and create content.

So, if you're feeling anxious about those blue whale headlines, take a deep breath and think about what principles you want for your children. Consider what your children should know if they ever need to walk anything back or tell you something that you might otherwise not want to hear. Discuss other “safe” adults to whom your children can turn, if they ever feel like they need to talk to someone else and how they can contact them, if necessary.

What I'm taking, personally, from these blue whale challenge games is that I need to help my children understand that they need to be vigilant. They can’t assume the people with whom they engage have their best interests at heart. And, that I am always going to hear what they say, no matter what they're saying.

Let your kids know you always have their backs. It's an essential part of online safety.

Loretta L.C. Brady, Ph.D., APA-CP, is professor of psychology at Saint Anselm College where she co-directs the Media Engagement and Developmental Impact Lab, along with Maria McKenna, Ph.D. Brady is a licensed clinical psychologist with an inclusion and organizational culture consulting firm, and lives in Manchester, New Hampshire, with her family. She is currently working on her first novel about youth, social media, and inclusion.