Social Media

Why the Russian Suicide Game Went Global

Blaming “The Blue Whale” for teen depression and worse is a distraction from the much bigger problem.

Blaming "The Blue Whale".

Photographer: Studio Box via Getty Images

A teenage suicide game spreading from Russia raises the same urgent questions everywhere, including Brazil, where my Bloomberg View colleague Mac Margolis just spotted it: Who is responsible? How do we stop them?

QuickTake Vladimir Putin

While social networks and the parliament in Russia have moved to eliminate so-called "groups of death," they may well be fighting an urban legend. But the obvious threat is well established: the tragically high suicide rates in countries struggling after the fall of the Soviet Union are a result of much broader societal ills.

The game that's got parents and officials worried in Brazil is called Baleia Azul -- a direct translation of the original Russian name, Siniy Kit, or Blue Whale. The name apparently comes from a song by the Russian rock band Lumen. Its opening lines are, "Why scream / When no one hears / What we're talking about?" and it features a "huge blue whale" that "can't break through the net." By posting on social networks using certain hashtags or joining to certain groups, teens -- usually between the ages of 10 and 14 – get spotted by "curators," who, after vetting the potential player, set up to 50 daily tasks leading up to the ultimate one, suicide. The tasks involve cutting oneself and taking other risks. For the last 10 days, the player needs to wake up at an appointed early morning hour, listen to music and contemplate death. Those who get cold feet and want to leave the game receive threats, often that their parents will be killed.

The general public in Russia first learned of the game and its variants in May 2016, when Galina Mursaliyeva, a journalist for the mostly anti-Kremlin Novaya Gazeta, described the culture of what she termed "death groups" through the experience of a mother whose 12-year-old daughter had killed herself. After the tragedy, the mother investigated her daughter's online activity and felt compelled to share her research to prevent further tragedies. The story made waves, even eliciting calls for limiting teenagers' access to the internet.

In November, Filipp Budeykin, a 21-year-old man suspected of being one of the early "curators," was arrested on charges of causing a person to commit suicide. The apartments of other "death group" administrators were searched. Budeykin, who reportedly suffers from bipolar disorder and who had had an unhappy childhood filled with failure and abuse, still faces trial.

This year, discussion of "death groups" has revived. Reports of adolescents playing the game emerged from Estonia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries. Irina Yarovaya, deputy speaker of the Russian parliament and one of the legislature's most hardline members, said in February that the number of teenage suicides in Russia increased to 720 in 2016 from 461 the previous year. "A war is being waged on children," she declared without saying who was conducting the war. "This is real criminal activity, organized, purposeful and with consequences." Yarovaya introduced a bill criminalizing the administration of "death groups" and games such as Blue Whale and introducing a six-year prison sentence for the new crime. Last week, the legislature gave it preliminary approval.

Vkontakte and Instagram, two of the most popular digital destinations for Russian adolescents, are also seeking to counter this scourge by removing posts containing Blue Whale-related hashtags. Instagram is also sending messages to posters suggesting counseling and offering help. 

The weakness of tying teen suicides to the social network groups and games like Blue Whale is, of course, that there's no proof of causation. A teenager who is contemplating suicide will always look for like-minded people, and social networks are just the easiest place to look. My 14-year-old stepdaughter knows all about Blue Whale and talks about it calmly and mockingly -- but mentions casually that she has friends who, if not going as far as jumping off a tall building, like to cut themselves to feel special and draw attention.

Since the game is widespread, some Russian teenagers have sought out "curators" to troll them. In one such hilarious exchange, the "curator" asks a girl to "cut out a whale." Instead, she cuts a cartoon cat from paper: The Russian words for "cat" and "whale" -- kot and kit -- are similar. Realizing that the teenager isn't serious about the suicide quest, the administrator becomes enraged and threatens to send people to harm her. She replies, "Let me come down to meet them -- the elevator isn't running and they may not have the energy to kill me once they get to the 8th floor." Of course, no one shows up.

It's possible, of course, that the game and the "death groups" drive up the suicide rate -- people, especially adolescents, tend to kill themselves in "space-time clusters" because of imitative behavior. But then, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Russia's teen suicide rate has long been higher than average. Today, it is second only to New Zealand's, where young, disadvantaged indigenous people swell the number of suicides. 

Teen Desperation

Suicide rates per 10,000 people aged 15-19, 2013 or latest available year

Source: OECD

No international organization specifically follows suicide rates among 10- to 15-year-olds, Blue Whale's target audience. But 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. That's often the story that precedes a Russian teen suicide. 

There are indications that young Russians are actively seeking outlets for their frustration. Teenage school and university students were the main force behind recent anti-corruption protests throughout the country. But political activity is not for everyone, and in Russia it can end as just as badly as any suicide game. 

The Russian government has gradually introduced tough laws against suicide-related content on the internet, taking down sites that so much as mention death by one's own hand. The criminalization of "death groups" will make the legal framework even tougher. But the teen suicide rate won't go down unless its root causes, not just its symptoms, are tacked. It is now lower in Russia than in the 1990s, when most of the country's population was suffering from major economic distress. Further reducing it means creating incentives for families to stay together, fighting the rampant drug and alcohol epidemics and presenting a more convincing vision of future opportunities for young people. President Vladimir Putin's regime, however, appears more focused on driving up the birth rate, of which Putin never misses an occasion to boast.

Meanwhile, Blue Whale, with its exploitation of self-pity and teenage posturing, will keep marching around the world. It doesn't need the ugly Russian background to thrive: Adolescent misery is borderless.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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