There have been several news reports in the past few days about teenagers from India participating in the Blue Whale Challenge. We spoke to mental health experts to understand what motivates someone to participate in this challenge, and what parents can look out for:
What do we know about the Blue Whale Challenge?
We have been hearing about the Blue Whale Challenge, but it is only suspected that it is the reason behind reported deaths. We do not have enough information at the moment, and experts caution against panic or jumping to conclusions. The challenge that origniated in Europe is a closed community and experts don't know enough to be able to analyse the behavior of participants.
Why are adolescents, in particular, attracted to in the Blue Whale Challenge?
The Blue Whale Challenge gives participants successive challenges that they need to fulfil, and each challenge comes with a reward (of proceeding to a next level, for instance). The challenges can be exciting to a teenager, and the reward offers an adrenaline rush and external validation.
Who is vulnerable?
While there may be children who do not want to be part of the challenge despite the peer pressure, any child or teenager who doesn’t know enough about navigating the online space, particularly in terms of safety, can be vulnerable. Those who participate in the challenge may be lonely and isolated, emotionally troubled and vulnerable to bullying. Some youngsters could also be looking for support and community. Experts say that often parents lack awareness about online safety which makes it easier for children to fall prey to it.
What makes teens vulnerable to trusting someone online?
Adolescents have all adult faculties except that of critical thinking and emotional resilience. While all other cognitive faculties are nearly developed by adolescence, the brain - particularly the prefrontal lobe, which determines critical thinking and emotional resilience - does not develop fully until a person is 25 years old. In essence, this is like having a powerful car, but without the controls of the mechanism. When a teen is emotionally vulnerable or lonely, they may not be able to weigh the consequences of these decisions. They may not be able to assess how healthy, or unhealthy their decisions are. It’s tempting for them to build a sense of competence or self-esteem around these achievements.
What do parents need to look out for?
If your child is spending a lot of time by themselves, away from friends and family (this is different from shy introverted teenagers - these teens will invariably have a smaller circle of friends who they enjoy spending time with, and are comfortable spending time alone)
If your child has low moods, crying spells or have stopped participating in activities that they enjoyed earlier
If they are locked up in their room more often, and are hesitant to tell you what they’re doing online; or are obsessively talking about what they did or read on the internet
If you see signs of self harm, cutting, or repeated injuries that don’t have an explanation
If you see any of the signs mentioned here, your teen may be at risk. Reach out to a mental health expert immediately.
How can parents keep their children safe? Does the solution lie in banning phones and the internet?
Banning technology is almost always never the answer. What parents can do instead is stay connected to what their children are doing online. The Blue Whale Challenge, for instance, has participants doing tasks at odd hours, in the middle of the night. Try to be aware of when your child is online and what they’re doing without infringing on their privacy, or giving them a sense of being monitored. It’s essential for parents to be vigilant. So have conversations about what they’re doing online and what it’s for. Have conversations about it.
As a parent, you can set an example by showing healthy use of technology, putting your phones and gadgets away when you’re at home, during mealtimes, or at bedtime. Set the ground rules for the use of the phone and the internet. Set clear rules for when technology is permitted; you can ask your child to switch off their phone or internet at the night and they can have their privacy by locking their phone, and you make sure they don’t access it until the morning.
This content has been created with inputs from child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Bhooshan Shukla and psychologist Sonali Gupta.