Over the past few months scary warnings have been circulating on social media asking parents, teachers, and police to beware of a hidden threat to children: a sinister online “game” that can lead to death! Some on social media have limned their reporting on the topic with appropriate skepticism, but many panicky social media posts plead for parents to take action.
Here is a typical warning: “The Blue Whale ‘suicide game’ is believed to be a hidden online social media group which its main aim is to encourage our children to kill themselves. Within the group daily task are assigned to members have to do different tasks for fifty days. They include self-harming, watching horror movies and waking up at unusual hours, but these gradually get more extreme. But on the fiftieth day, the controlling manipulators behind the game reportedly instruct the youngsters to commit suicide. Please share and warn all other parents of the dangers of this game. We do not want any deaths related to the game within the UK.”
Though a few qualifiers are dutifully included (“is believed to be” and “reportedly,” for example) the overall tone is alarmist and sensational. It’s not clear where the appellation “Blue Whale” game comes from, though some have suggested it’s linked to suicidal whale beachings. Debunking website Snopes traced the story back to a May 2016 article on a Russian news site, which “reported dozens of suicides of children in Russia during a six-month span, asserting that some of the people who had taken their lives were part of the same online game community.”
While it appears to be true that some of the teens used the same social media gaming sites, it does not logically imply that there’s any link between the deaths, nor that the site caused them. Correlation does not imply causation, and it’s more likely that depressed teens may be drawn to certain websites than it is that those websites caused their users to become depressed and/or suicidal. And, of course, on any wildly popular social media site (including Instagram, Facebook, or Pogo), a small subset of users will share common characteristics, including mental illness, simply by random chance.
Real or Rumor?
There is little evidence that the game has actually caused suicides, or that it even exists.
The question is not, “Is this scary event possible?” because of course it is—anything is possible. Rumors and legends often involve things and events that people can believe might be real, might be a genuine threat to the health or safety of themselves or their loved ones. All urban legends have an element of superficial credibility about them; that’s why they are widely shared and warned about.
There is a sort of self-limiting credulity mechanism built into urban legends and what’s often called scarelore: If you hear some warning that is so outlandish and bizarre that no one would believe it, then you don’t spread it around because others will recognize the story as patently absurd and question your judgment for sharing such a silly story in the first place.
The question is instead, “Is there any evidence that this scary story is true?” and that is a very different matter. Rumors and legends are widely shared because they appeal to apparently legitimate statistics and sources—in this case seemingly specific numbers such as 130 victims—or to statements from legitimate police organizations. There is little or no evidence that the story is true, and it’s important for journalists to make sure the public knows this and not write alarmist stories that sensationalize the claims.
Moral panics such as the Blue Whale Game are part of a very old tradition. These scary media stories are very popular because they are fueled by parents’ fears and wanting to know what their kids are up to. Are seemingly innocent role-playing games and entertainment leading to unspeakable evil, in the form of Satan or even death? We saw the same fears decades ago about Dungeons and Dragons, heavy metal music, and violent video games. Now it’s online games and social media.
Indeed, the Blue Whale Game has all the hallmarks of a classic moral panic. Familiar elements and themes include:
- Modern technology and seemingly benign personal devices as posing hidden dangers to children and teens;
- In classic “Stranger Danger” fashion, the threat is some influential evil stranger who manipulates the innocent; and
- There is an element of conspiracy theory to these stories: it’s always a “hidden world” of anonymous evil people who apparently have nothing better to do than ask teens to do things for fifty days before (somehow) compelling them to commit suicide.
Responding to the Scare
The mere fact that news organizations and school officials comment on the rumors often lends credibility to the stories, and authorities should be careful about legitimizing these sorts of moral panics. Police, teachers, and others issue statements to address rumors but often end up legitimizing the stories and making them more credible. Parents and others who might otherwise recognize the rumors as bogus may say, “Well, I thought it was a hoax, but even the police are commenting on it, so there must be some truth to it!”
In fact, authorities will often be pressured by parents and others to address rumors and stories even if there is no evidence for them. People take a “better safe than sorry” approach to sharing these stories, and it ends up doing more harm than good if there is no underlying threat, as is the case here. It’s also common for journalists and others—even when a threat is recognized as bogus—to spin the panic into a “teachable moment” in which to remind kids about the dangers of peer influence, the perils of online predators, bullying, and so on. (A similar thing happened with last year’s scary clown panic, during which several schools were placed on lockdown due to rumors of violent clowns.)
The best way for parents to cope with these rumors is to not share them and calm their children’s fears if they hear them. Parents do not need to have a somber, serious sit-down discussion with their kids; instead it can be as simple as acknowledging the rumors and saying in passing, “You know it’s just a joke, a rumor. There’s no truth to it.” Parents should trust that their children are media savvy and smart enough not to do whatever a stranger tells them. (Parents have a hard enough time getting their teenagers to follow their rules one day at a time, so getting them to diligently follow a stranger’s increasingly bizarre instructions daily for nearly two months would be a remarkable feat indeed.)
CFI Fellow Richard Saunders, a veteran skeptic and host of the Skeptic Zone podcast, added that “One of the problems faced by the modern media is the precious little time and resources they have to do basic investigation into the validity of a story. It is more expedient for a publisher or an editor to put out the story half-baked, especially one concerning the imminent demise of beloved children, than to do thorough research.” Saunders noted that in today’s twenty-four–hour news cycle, “There are just too many other stories competing for the public attention, and their attention span is brief, especially when they get much of their news from Facebook. Competition is fierce and in order to keep up and sell newspapers, or have people read your story in any form, it is necessary to cut corners. Next week there will be another story and any controversy over the current story will be soon forgotten as yesterday’s (or last week’s) news.”
There is of course a possibility that some people (kids or adults) will take the stories seriously and try to participate in, or even create, such a game, even if it doesn’t really exist. Journalists and others in the news media can help deter such copycats by treating the topic skeptically. Journalists and police should also be careful not to confuse or attribute some genuine, unrelated suicides to the Blue Whale Game, as the Russian news source mentioned earlier apparently did. In the wake of suicides, which are sadly not uncommon among young people for a wide variety of reasons, many people will look for answers or scapegoats, including rock music, violent video games, and so on. Journalists can also help by seeking out skeptics, psychologists, and experts in folklore to help put the claims into context.
This is only the latest in a long series of similar moral panics and outrages shared on social media and aided by sensationalist news media. Often the best antidote to the Blue Whale Game and other moral panics is a healthy dose of skepticism.