A small boat over a silhouette of a large whale.

Was a ‘Blue Whale Suicide Challenge’ Behind a Rash of Teen Deaths?

Reports about a “Blue Whale” suicide challenge or suicide game that’s allegedly responsible for hundreds of teen suicides have been lurking around on the fringes for several years. The stories are unproven — and similar warnings about online suicide games, challenges and chat rooms have been around for more than a decade.

It should be noted that some believe that the Russian government has fueled reports about the “Blue Whale” suicide game so that it can be used as an excuse to crack down on internet usage among teens.

The “Blue Whale” warnings seem to have started with a report that appeared in the Russian tabloid Novaya Gazeta under the headline “Groups of Death” in May 2016. According to the report, at least 130 teenagers who participated in closed groups on the Russian social network VKontakte had committed suicide from November 2015 to May 2016. The names of these groups all apparently contained the word “whale” — space whale, white whale, whale journal, sea of whales, ocean whale, and flying whale (the phrase “blue whale” did not appear in the report.) These names reference the mysterious concept of “stranding” in which otherwise healthy dolphins and whales beach themselves and die for unknown reasons.

The Novaya Gazeta report tells the story of a woman named Irena, who explains that her child committed suicide after taking part in a fifty-day challenge in a closed VKontaktke whale group. Administrators of the group reportedly issued challenges each day  — including self mutilating, sleep deprivation, and listening to and watching specific content — before building up to suicide on the fiftieth day.

The report immediately went viral in Russia, but critics have accused Novaya Gazeta of embellishing details of the story and of reporting unverified facts. Others noted that Russian officials were quick to seize on the report as a public health threat — hinting that “Blue Whale” rumors could be an excuse for the Kremlin to crack down on internet usage among teens, the Moscow Times reports:

The story — titled “Groups of Death” — immediately received more than 1.5 million hits, and sparked a media storm. Some commentators accused Novaya Gazeta of exaggerating the problem, and expressed fear that the story would only inspire authorities to impose more restrictions on the Internet, the standard reaction nowadays.

Indeed, officials seemed ready to jump on their favorite hobbyhorse. The flamboyant children’s ombudsman Pavel Astakhov declared that the Internet and communications systems were threatening children in ways never seen before. The infamous author of the so-called “gay propaganda law” Yelena Mizulina, currently a Federation Council senator, proposed fining social networks for having suicidal content.

Novaya Gazeta’s terrifying claims are yet to be verified and confirmed: Russian law enforcement launched a large-scale investigation of VKontakte communities and their connection to teenage suicide. Follow-up investigations by other media outlets concluded that much of Novaya Gazeta’s story was embellished. The Lenta.ru news website reported that ill-famed VKontakte communities were not aiming to force children to commit suicide. Rather, they were run by nerdy teenagers obsessed with accumulating likes and shares, Lenta.ru said, and publishing “shocking content” about suicide helped them drive traffic to their online groups. Such efforts did result in suicides, the investigation reported, but not hundreds of them.

In November 2016, Russia’s Investigative Committee announced that it had detained 21-year-old Philip Budeikin on suspicion of hosting eight suicide challenges  groups on the social network that had been linked to 15 deaths between 2013 and 2016, according to Russian media:

Russia’s Investigative Committee has announced the arrest of an administrator of a group on the VKontakte social network that instigates children to commit suicide.
Spokesperson for Russia’s Investigative Committee Svetlana Petrenko told TASS that “in May 2016, St. Petersburg investigators reviewed some media reports on closed groups on one of Russia’s popular social networks, that had been allegedly goading kids to commit suicide.”

After conducting a probe, a criminal case on charges of instigating suicide was launched.
According to the investigators, from December 2013 to May 2016, the perpetrators established eight virtual groups on the VKontakte social network to promote suicidal behavior and drive underage users to commit suicide. The investigators found out that access to these groups had been limited with membership provided by the administrator.

Again, the Russian government’s response to these reports has sparked sharp rebukes from critics. Families of some teens whose suicides have been linked to the “Blue Whale” challenge have spoken out, for example, arguing that the game had nothing to do with their loved ones’ deaths, Radio Free Europe reported in 2017:

Mental-health professionals and government officials are expressing concern, although for different reasons. Activists are urging a focus on the factors that drive youths to be interested in such ghoulish games, while politicians tend to see the Blue Whale phenomenon as an argument for bolstering control over the Internet.

At a hearing on February 16 of Russia’s Public Chamber to discuss proposed legislation increasing punishments for inciting suicide, members heard allegations that Blue Whale had been created by “Ukrainian nationalists” as “a professionally prepared campaign that has caught up at least 2 million youths,” according to a report of the meeting in the daily Kommersant.

The story quickly made its way out of Russia, with stories appearing in media outlets in Dubai, India, and the U.K, all citing the original, still unproven claim about 130 teen suicides in Russia being linked to the challenge. In the re-tellings, however, the challenge was called the “Blue Whale” suicide challenge or suicide game. One report appearing in Dubai’s Khaleej Times explained that parents had received alerts from school officials about the Blue Whale suicide game:

Worried school parents in Dubai have been sharing advisories with each other via social media regarding an online craze, which has reportedly been linked to hundreds of teen deaths in Russia.

The chilling challenge, called Blue Whale, is a ‘suicide game’ allegedly run by an online social media group in which gamers are being urged to complete a set of daring challenges over a 50-day period, before then being told to kill themselves.

In a Whatsapp message to Khaleej Times, the advisory read: “Any parents out there or anyone that knows of any kids playing an online game called ‘Blue Whale’, please get your kids off this game. It sets them 50 challenges and the last one is to commit suicide.”

Since the story went viral outside Russia, a number of reports have popped up linking attempted suicides to the Blue Whale “game.” However, it’s not clear exactly how widespread the danger is, or how many deaths can actually be linked to it. It’s also important to note that this isn’t first time warnings about suicide challenges, suicide games or suicide chat rooms have circulated. One such account from 2006 tells of “suicide chat rooms” and “suicide websites.” In the end, we’re calling claims about the “Blue Whale” suicide game Unknown.