This essay is going to describe motivations for children and teenagers taking their own lives. I do not know someone personally who took their own life, and I am not a suicide expert. I do not know the devastation suicide brings to a family, and I don’t know what it’s like to desire to take one’s own life. When I heard some of these reports about suicide “games” it compelled me to see if there is any truth to these reports. My findings then compelled me further to expose the darkness of it. I will do my best to be sensitive and kind.
Today I scrolled through a list of the most recent deaths from a “game” which consists of a series of 50 challenges over 50 days leading the player to take their own life.3 This “game” is called the Blue Whale Challenge and it is not clear how many people have died as participants. I am honestly unsure if I can do justice to this topic, but I think it is important that it is brought into the light. I will not be sharing specific stories of participants, because I honestly do not want to. I don’t recommend looking into specific accounts because they are very upsetting and I don’t think they are helpful. I will discuss details of the game and some of the potential contributing factors to its adoption.
What Is It?
The Blue Whale Challenge is fifty challenges given by a curator to a participant through the WhatsApp messaging service. The curators of the challenge find participants through suicide and depression forums on various social media platforms. Would be participants will post with the hashtags “#I_Am_Whale”, or “#BlueWhaleChallenge” which are an invitation to a curator to contact them. The curators add the new participant on WhatsApp and then start sending challenges daily for fifty days. Challenges start with requests for things like personal information and inappropriate pictures to give the curator power over the participant. After the curator establishes their power, the challenges transition to facing scary tasks typically after 2 am: for example, watching disturbing videos, or going to “scary” places. Toward the end of the fifty days challenges become primarily about self-harm or even suicide “practice” such as cutting or scouting locations for suicide. The last challenge is always the same, “End your life.” 1
This challenge was started by Philipp Budeikin who is 22-years old and was recently sentenced to three years in jail for its creation. He claimed that he was cleaning our society of biological waste, and seemed proud of his accomplishments.5 The precise number of deaths from Blue Whale is virtually impossible to calculate, because of the multiple influences leading someone to suicide. It is especially hard because the participants are trying to hide their participation from those close to them. I saw reports of 130 suicides ascribed to Blue Whale in Russia alone. The problem with the data is that when someone kills themselves their motivations are obscured, and difficult to figure out. Just because they were part of a Blue Whale forum doesn’t mean that this caused their suicide. Budeikin denied being involved in 130 deaths, but he did claim that he was personally involved in convincing 17 teenagers to end their lives and that he had 28 more moving that direction5.
The Blue Whale Challenge – essentially a meme
Meme: an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture – Merriam Webster Dictionary
One specific problem with cultural memes such as this is that they go beyond their creator. Even harmless memes go beyond the original intentions very quickly. A good example is that in 2009 a man named Erik Knudsen created an image of a character called Slender Man for a photoshop contest. Because this character had no true origin aside from the photos, creating lore was an unofficial open source pet project for enthusiasts trying to make a somewhat fun and interesting scary story.2 In 2014 this semi-creepy amalgam of modern folklore became the motivation for two 12-year old girls stabbing their friend. The girls claimed that Slender Man told them to do it. The girls’ story was told in an HBO documentary called Beware The Slenderman. I believe, after watching the documentary, that the potential for demonic involvement in their case is quite high. Through the channels of open source forums, a harmless meme became the inspiration for an attempted murder within five years of its creation. Regardless of how many people Philipp Budeikin directly influenced with Blue Whale, it has not stopped with his incarceration.
The Curators: A psychological horror
After this challenge was discovered, the assumption in Russia was that adults with sadistic fantasies were using the Blue Whale system to receive photos of self-harm from their victims.1 That assumption was wrong. While it started with Budeiken, the current Blue Whale curators found on the Russian social media site VKontakte are all adolescents. Alexandra Arkhipova is a professor of Folklore studies at Russian State University and she did some intensive research on the Blue Whale challenge and stated, “All of these ‘curators’, turned out to be children aged 12 to 14.” 1 This fact is somewhat baffling. What kind of teenager would be this sadistic? There could be an explanation in that the victim is obscured from the perpetrator because instant messaging through WhatsApp is an impersonal platform.
When I worked at a local burger restaurant, the staff would pose pseudo-philosophical questions to each other when business was slow. One scenario I posed was, “A man comes up to you with $10,000,000 in hand and asks if you would like to have it. The only condition is that one person in the world whom you do not know will die if you take the money. Would you take it?” This basic scenario was something I saw in the movie The Box, and it surprised me that every person I asked said they would take the money except for one. Whenever someone would say yes I would raise the stakes, “What if you had to push a button to kill them, but didn’t have to see or hear it?” Fewer people agreed with the new stipulation, but still, most people took the money. Then I would raise the stakes again, “What if you had to shoot them, but it was from a distance like with a long range rifle?” At that point, most wouldn’t do it but some still said they would. “What if you had to shoot them from ten yards?” Very few claimed they would take the money. “What if you had to stab them?” No one wanted the money at that point. Once we had gone through the whole process I asked if they would agree to take the money with the original terms. The interesting, and somewhat redeeming, part of the experiment was that fewer people would agree to the original terms because they had considered what the cost of the money would be. The terms hadn’t changed the cost of taking the money was murder, but the proximity to the cost had changed dramatically as the scenario progressed. The obscuring of the victim blinded people from the wickedness of taking the money in exchange for human life.
When I was in my Theories of Personality class we talked about the power of anonymity. The concept essentially is that the more anonymous a person is the more potential they have to act violently. The example we talked about was in warfare it is typical to paint one’s face or wear a mask, the anonymity diffuses perceived accountability for actions to the collective. The point illustrated in my work experiment works inversely. If the victim is obscured it is easier to act violently, and the more anonymity a person has the more willing they are to be violent. In the case of Blue Whale, there is total anonymity for the curator and an obscuring of the victim. This same phenomenon occurs in cases of cyberbullying,
“If the perpetrator does not see the victim, then s/he may have less awareness of the consequences and the effects that their actions are causing. This is also two-sided. On the one hand, the satisfaction of seeing the victim suffer, or the public display of power in the peer group, may be less available to motivate the perpetrator. On the other hand, without the direct feedback that traditional bullying may offer there may be fewer opportunities for empathy or remorse” — (2012, Robert Slonje, Peter K. Smith, Ann Frisén) 6
The adolescents who are convincing their peers to kill themselves do not see the whole cost of their actions. Even if they are receiving photos or videos of their victim’s self-harm there is still less potential for an empathetic response. Typing a message is far easier to stomach than actually standing in front of another human and forcing them to hurt themselves.
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I haven't found any hard evidence of demonic activity in regards to Blue Whale. Despite that, I would be surprised if this is merely a human act. Humans are wicked, we know this from Romans 3, but this type of wickedness is deeply unsettling.
There is a cocktail of situations which give room for this type of sin. The first ingredient of the cocktail is depression and a lack of desire for one's own life. Personally, I have not had suicidal thoughts but I have had a deep personal depression which led me to not want to exist. After prayer and looking for a cause it became clear the cause of my depression was demonic. My friends prayed for me to have faith. In the power of Christ, I sent the demon away and was not depressed after that. While depression doesn’t have to be demonic it absolutely can be demonic. The second ingredient is a semi-anonymous social media platform to feed this depression. The third ingredient is the way cultural memes develop. While this was started by one man, in hearing about the challenge others have picked up and adapted his model to suit their own desires. The final two ingredients are a broken and wicked heart and the power of anonymity, which give rise to a perpetrator. This violent cocktail fits with the behaviors of a spiritual being who wants to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10). Demons love death, and there is a president for them influencing suicide.
- Mark 9:22 - Unclean spirits try to kill a young boy
- Hebrews 2:14 - says that the devil has the power of death
- John 13:27 - Judas is possessed and eventually kills himself
- 1 Samuel 28:8 & 1 Samuel 31:4 - Saul commits necromancy, a demonic power, then eventually kills himself
- Job 3:11 - Job wished he had never been born after being harassed by Satan
There are physiological causes of depression but they are complicated and not as helpful as people think. Harvard Health Publishing stated, "Research suggests that depression doesn't spring from simply having too much or too little of certain brain chemicals. ... It's believed that several of these forces interact to bring on depression." 7 They can observe depression and even predict it but it isn't simple, easy, or clear cut. Even more strange, our culture seems to have a subconscious understanding that depression is often demonic. Even those who don't believe in spiritual things use the demonic activity as a metaphor for inner struggles like depression or alcoholism.
"Robin Williams seemed to have it all: fame, wealth, an Oscar, an adoring and passionate fan following — but he also had a history of battling demons." - Alex Johnson 8
Why does this NBC News reporter call Robin Williams mental health struggles a demonic battle? This could be because historically it is common to see mental illness as demonic, but it is still strange. We do not live in an overly religious nation so why is this language commonplace?
Is this even real?
Yes, the Blue Whale challenge is real although some claim Blue Whale is a hoax. I hope that the evidence of Alexandra Arkhipova’s peer-reviewed article and the conviction of Philipp Budeikin will convince you that it is not. I am not sure how something so ubiquitous could be a hoax.
Some may say, “If they are being convinced to kill themselves, then it is their own fault.” That type of thinking is something I have heard people say when speaking of suicide. The phrase “selfish act” is also common when talking about suicide. There is truth to that sentiment, we are all accountable for our actions (Romans 14:12). That attitude is not particularly loving toward those who are oppressed. When the demoniac is approached by Jesus he isn't spurned for his evil but is given mercy (Mark 5:19). I’m not saying those struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide should not repent. I am saying that we should treat oppressed people with kindness and compassion and shepherd them toward repentance in light of the mercy of God, and the freedom in Christ (Matthew 11:28). In the case of oppression, compassion should be our first response (Matthew 9:36, Colossians 3:12).
You may think these people are not oppressed because they voluntarily entered this challenge. If that is the case for you then I would ask you to consider the fact that humanity is a slave to sin and then redeemed by Christ (John 8:34, Ephesians 2:1-3). Through the sins of Adam, and the blinding of our eyes in unrighteousness, and the practice of sin we become slaves to sin and are oppressed by sin. In the garden, Adam and Eve were to rule the animals and cultivate the plants and fill the earth (Genesis 1:28-31). They were tasked with obeying God by not eating of the Tree of The Knowledge of Good And Evil (Genesis 2:17). They failed this task and instead of ruling over creation they were subject to the creation, initiating slavery (Genesis 3:6). We can be trapped in metaphorical prisons of our own design. If an environmentalist chose to chain himself to a tree and didn't bring the key, he would be stuck there regardless of his choice in the matter. These teenagers are oppressed, if not by demons, then certainly by their own sin. The victims are oppressed by the curators, and the curators are oppressed by their own hearts.
The Blue Whale Challenge is devastating to me. I had a hard time writing this and reading the stories without welling up. My only hope is in Christ who came to give life and give it abundantly (John 10:10). He is the direct antithesis of the one who comes to steal and kill and destroy. He is the one who crushed the head of the serpent and put him to open shame (Colossians 2:15). He is seated now in the heavenly places and there will come a day where he comes back and brings justice with him (Ephesians 2:6, Revelation 30:9-10). I pray if you struggle with depression you will put your hope in Christ knowing he will deliver you in this life or the resurrection. I pray that the perpetrators of this wickedness will repent and beg for the mercy of Jesus. I pray that if they do not repent that Jesus will do justice on account of himself, and on account of the oppressed. Lord, help us.
- Adeane, Ant. "Blue Whale: What is the truth behind an online 'suicide challenge'?" BBC News, Jan 13, 2019.
- Cohn, Gabe. "How Slender Man Became a Legend." New York Times, Aug. 15, 2018.
- Dwilson, Stephanie. "Emine Karadag Is Latest Blue Whale Challenge Death: List of Connected Suicides In & Outside of the U.S." Heavy.com, Feb. 1, 2019.
- Grohol, John M. Psy.D. "The Blue Whale Challenge is Real, Sad, & Frightening." Psych Central, July 8, 2018
- Jaini, Akash. "Meet The 22-year-old Creator of The 'Blue Whale' Death Game." The Times of India, Aug 2, 2017.
- Slonje, Robert. Smith, Peter K. & Frisén, Ann. "The nature of cyberbullying, and strategies for prevention." Elsevier Journal, 2012.
- Harvard Health Publishing. "What Causes Depression?" Havard Medical School, April 11, 2017
- Johnson, Alex. "Robin Williams Battled Demons for Decades Before His Death." NBC News, Aug. 12, 2014
- Barna Research. "How We Got Here: Spiritual and Political Profiles of America" Barna Research, May 23, 2017