Earlier this month, if you were befuddled by the green-colored screenshots filling up your Facebook wall and Twitter feed, you weren’t alone. Say hello to Sarahah, an anonymous feedback application which allows people to hear what others have to say about them. On the face of it, the answer to the question, what is Sarahah, is that it’s an interesting way to get feedback but the application has opened gates to bullying. It seems to be a hark back to school days when bullies would plaster washroom walls with what they thought about other kids.
Around the same time, came a trend that was as disturbing for what it entailed as it was for the fact that it was going viral. A set of 50 tasks, targeted at teens between the ages of 10-14, all leading up to the player committing suicide in real life; this is the Blue Whale Challenge. From waking up in the dead of night, watching horror movies, to carving a blue whale on one’s body, this challenge which requires one to post proofs of completed tasks on social media, is terrifying, unnerving, and in the wake of its shocking popularity, an indication of the vulnerability of kids today.
What started off as the popularity of seemingly fun yet subtly violent games like Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja has today metamorphosed into viral trends that can only be called disturbing. Both the Blue Whale challenge and the Sarahah app point to how more and more applications and ‘games’ are feeding human need for approval and achievement, one of the measures of which is sharing on social media.
The Blue Whale challenge, which originated in Eastern Europe, has been linked to deaths of teens across the globe including 3 kids in India. There have been reports where Sarahah accounts have been misused to anonymously bully teens. It’s also an easy platform to stalk kids and adults alike and share inappropriate content with minors.
Is the physical pain also a high of sorts? Or are playing the Blue Whale online challenge and commenting on Sarahah a resort to hide the feelings of depression and anxiety that is so commonplace in today’s kids? And what then, is driving kids as young as 11 and 12 to participate in these trends?
Psychologists say that emotionally vulnerable and disturbed children may be in it for momentary gratification. Neurochemicals like dopamine give you a sense of happiness and pleasure on achieving something. Every post like/share/retweet on social media is perceived as an acknowledgement of a person’s achievement.
According to a 2012 Lancet report, India has one of the highest suicide rates for youth in the age group of 15-29. Add to those numbers, the dangers of so-called games like Blue Whale, Mariam (players need to divulge personal information in their quest to help the protagonist of the game find her way home), and Al Badayer (believed to have messages coded to radicalize youngsters), and you have a wake-up scream.
An achievement-driven society like ours sometimes, kicks to the curb, introverts and under achievers. Pressure from parents to do more and better, teachers aiming for 100 percent results, and peer pressure can make for a kid who feels alone and overwhelmed. It is important to have an open relationship with children. With acknowledgement and validation at home, their need to look for approval outside and on social media can be minimized.
Digital mediums can give users a false sense of importance. Education and awareness about dangerous viral challenges is the only way to ensure that children remain vary about the dangers at hand. Awareness is doubly important when the information is out there and kids don’t know what the outcome could be. The onus lies not only with parents but also schools and educators. The latter should make constant efforts to educate students about the perils of such games and also monitor internet usage. The government also plays a crucial role. In the case of the Blue Whale challenge, for instance, the government has asked top websites and platforms like Google, Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp and others to take down any links leading to the ‘game’.
Update: In Lucknow, the use of smart phones by children has been banned in schools by the Education Department to prevent kids from playing the Blue Whale Challenge. Parents have been asked to monitor their kids’ online activity to ensure they aren’t engaged in the game.
Sure, in an ideal world applications and games would be filtered by companies; they would be able to remove every trace of sadistic games such as these much before they become headlines. But that seems to be far from possible or true. Today all that can be done is spreading awareness and practicing, in the words of Mad-Eyed Moody, “constant vigilance“.