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‘Blue Whale’: Clickbait or a new form of online grooming?

A reader in India, where a “Blue Whale” scare has now taken off, asked it’s a genuine threat, so I’m reposting here the following response I posted in Comments to give you an update (see also a sidebar below about the all-important Russian context):

In answer to the question in the headline up there, maybe both. It is also now quite likely a cybersecurity risk to people’s devices and data (see the bottom of this post).

Blue whale photo

The name “Blue Whale” is reported by Bloomberg.com to come from song lyrics by Russian rock band Lumen by (Source of blue whale photo taken off the Azores: Wikimedia Commons)

As I wrote in my first post on “Blue Whale” last March, it has been called “clickbait” or “a wave of clickbait” and “fake news” by Internet safety and media literacy professionals in eastern Europe close to its origins in Russia and Kyrgyzstan. So I’ve relied heavily on their expertise – and the early investigative work of RFE/RL – to share how this much-hyped misinformation has spread. It’s hard for people in India, the US or any other country to tell fact from fiction in information that comes from other countries, when we don’t fully understand the cultures, laws, media and government-press relations in those other countries.

In my second post on the subject, I pointed to a core concern of information gone viral. The more “fake news” or even partially true stories spread, the more their credence and – when they’re about self-harm, the potential for suicide contagion – seem to grow. Also, in terms of sheer numbers, the more viral the scary falsity is, the more people – from vulnerable people to those who exploit vulnerability – are exposed to it, which grows the chance of it becoming a real threat, right? So we don’t want to see people believing and spreading it, and media literacy is now a protection.

A self-harm kind of grooming?

However, we know from the research that suicide very, very rarely has a single cause, and even more rarely stems from an event or information beyond the direct experience of the individual. We need to be just as alert to signs of depression, extreme anxiety and bullying (social cruelty) in the life of a child as to any story about what might be happening online.

So regarding the “Blue Whale” phenomenon, the core question is – if a child is particularly vulnerable – whether there’s manipulation going on in that child’s online experience. It’s not a “game” or a story about a game itself that’s the issue; online manipulation, and vulnerability to it, are the issue. We need to know if police investigations into children’s deaths have actually turned up evidence of contact with an actual person who’d been manipulating them in what may be a new form of online grooming, which used to be associated with sexual exploitation. If that is what has been happening – and it’s nearly impossible to tell without thorough investigation – we need to focus attention less on a “game” as the “cause” and more on what might attract and compel a child to engage in self-harm facilitated by someone far away whome they don’t know in offline life.

What parents might consider

We can ask our kids if they’re communicating or “playing” with anyone they don’t know online. Most kids find the very idea of that creepy and know to ignore or block such communication (there’s research on that). So if the child is particularly uncommunicative and shows signs of mental health challenges, sleep deprivation, not wanting to go to school, depression, etc., that’s when we need to be concerned about something like a “Blue Whale game.” In particular, “look for uncharacteristic behavior changes,” suicide prevention expert Dan Reidenberg wrote me, for example, “drawings or comments about blue whales, withdrawal from their typical peer group, spending more time than usual online and not allowing you to know what they are doing, or engaging in more reckless behaviors.” Hopefully, we’re aware of our children’s struggles, interests and needs and are working with them well before they would close us off and look for approval and attention from unknown people online.

Oh, and watch out for “Blue Whale” apps designed to trick people into installing malware on their phones. That’s another outcome of stories that go viral, especially globally.

SIDEBAR: Youth mental health & the Russian context

Two things that are almost always left out of the “Blue Whale” discussion are its (original) Russian context and the mental health of kids who are exposed to the story – whether or not they get involved in anything more than discussion about it (and, thanks to the news media, there’s no question that it’s being discussed in many countries).

Back in 2009, a national task force on Internet safety I served on issued a landmark report and lit review with this key finding: Not all young people are equally at risk online; those most at risk offline are the youth most at risk online. That may seem intuitive by now, but we seem to keep forgetting it. We, collectively, globally, certainly seem to have forgotten it in this case. For example…

Although this Bloomberg News commentary makes some unhelpful sweeping generalizations about teenagers, at least it makes reference to how mentally healthy teens handle stories like “Blue Whale,” citing the story of how a teenager toyed with a so-called Blue Whale curator and easily moved on (reminding me of resiliency‘s important role online and offline, one of the internal safeguards that hasn’t gotten enough attention in the Net safety discussion).

Then there’s that all-important factor: context. Russia has one of the world’s highest teen suicide rates among countries tracked by the OECD, according to data cited by that same Bloomberg article. So remembering that “not all youth are equally at risk,” think about young people’s context in your home, community and country when you read this characterization  of Russian teens’ context by Bloomberg writer Leonid Bershidsky:

It’s safe to assume that Russia is also one of the global leaders on that count. Researchers have attributed the prevalence of teen suicide in Russia to widespread family dysfunction (Russia has one of the highest divorce rates in the world) and the easy availability and social acceptability of alcohol.

There is also the additional pressure of living in a corrupt, quasi-capitalist system where there’s no clear path to success for kids from families without political and professional connections. It’s particularly hard to see a future growing up in a grim, high-rise residential block on the outskirts of an industrial city, with parents drinking, quarreling or absent and school providing no respite. 

And this quote of Russian psychologist – Alexander Voiskunsky at Moscow State University – in Russian news site Lenta.ru adds scholarly backup to Bershidsky’s point: “Many modern children do not see prospects and opportunities to succeed in life, but they see how pathetic their parents are and do not want to share their fate. As a result, youthful rejection of reality becomes fertile ground for the propaganda of suicide.”

Those are the kinds of conditions that can make children more vulnerable to the “grooming” or manipulation I mentioned in my post above – those external ones, as well as the state of their mental health and resiliency levels.

Probably the most central research finding the “Blue Whale” story illustrates is one of those that emerged from the lit review of the our 2008 task force at Harvard University’s Berkman Center (now Berkman Klein Center): that a child’s psychosocial makeup and home and school environments are better predictors of online risk than any technology or media the child uses.

Related links

  • One of the best commentaries on “Blue Whale” that I’ve seen – from any country – is one by Pranesh Prakash, Policy Director at India’s Center for Internet & Society. It was recently published in BuzzFeed.
  • For even more context and granularity – which I believe are essential to addressing this or any moral panic, including this one – read the excellent investigative reporting in Meduza last March here, linking to its investigative work the month before here. You can read the articles in English with the help of Google Translate. [My thanks to Georgi Apostolov, head of Bulgaria’s Safer Internet Centre, for pointing out these Russian-language sources to me. See Wikipedia for background on Latvia-based Meduza and its founder and former editor-in-chief, Galina Timchenko, in Wikipedia.] 
  • As we consider origins and context, let’s not forget to consider the unintended consequences of spreading fear. Please see what the social norms research says about that in my second post about the Blue Whale phenomenon.
  • How to recognize grooming,” an article I wrote back in 2005
  • Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s investigative coverage last winter
  • “The truth about ‘Blue Whale'” in Wired UK last May
  • My first three posts in March, May and July
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