Parents and teachers beware The Blue Whale

As the summer season closes, school bells are starting to ring. I wish all area schoolchildren a safe, happy and memorable school year.

I can’t believe all of my grandchildren will now be in school. Time certainly flies! If you follow my column, you know I recently spent some time in Toledo, Ohio. While there I heard of a challenge game that shocked me. So, of course, being the inquisitive person I am, I came home and did some digging. My column this month is on bullying, cyberbullying and a game called “The Blue Whale.”

My sister alerted me to the problems of cyberbullying that seem to be increasing in Toledo schools. I know it’s everywhere, but as I read The Toledo Blade, I was stunned by how young some of these children were. One obituary picture was of Luken Boyle, 14, whose parents wrote in his obituary, “Words cannot express the pain and heartache brought on by one impulsive decision as a result of cyberbullying.” In an article about Luken’s death, Lucas County Suicide Prevention Coalition Coordinator Jan Burgard-Moore said, “There is no escape in the Internet age. While a bully’s target used to be able to take refuge at home, cyberbullying now can reach a victim anywhere, all the time.”

So let’s look at bullying first. By definition, bullying is being mean to another kid over and over again. It refers to verbal, physical or mental acts committed upon another. It includes teasing and threats. One in four students reports being bullied at school.

Other facts about bullying include: Approximately 160,000 teens skip school each day because of it, and 17 percent of American students report being bullied two or three times a month within a semester. Teachers notice or intervene in only one in 25 incidents. Physical bullying increases in elementary school, peaks in middle school and declines in high school, with sixth grade being the worst for bullying. Verbal abuse, though, remains constant. People who have been bullied are at greater risk for health problems in adulthood, six times more likely to be diagnosed with a serious illness, smoke regularly or develop a psychiatric disorder compared to those not involved in bullying.

Let’s take a look at cyberbullying now. This is bullying while online: 40 percent of 7- to 11-year-olds know someone who has been cyberbullied. Over the last three years there has been an 87 percent increase in counseling sessions about online bullying; seven in 10 young people 12-22 have been a victim of cyberbullying. An estimated 1.26 million young people in the UK (where the game supposedly originated) have been subjected to cyberbullying on a daily basis. Here are some stats about young peoples’ behavior online: 60 percent of 13- to 18-year-olds have been asked for a sexual image or video of themselves; 20 percent of 7- to 11-year-olds said they had needed to report content online but hadn’t done so because they didn’t know how to make a report, didn’t know what a report was and/or didn’t think it would help; 27 percent of 7- to 11-year-olds and 41 percent of 11- to 19-year-olds said they have seen something on the internet that upset or worried them; 96 percent of young people age 11-19 use some form of online communication; 72 percent of 11- to 15-year-olds and 92 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds use social networks, with a particularly rapid increase from 11-year-olds (46 percent) to 13-year-olds (84 percent).

While in Toledo, I heard a lot about an internet game that is supposedly sweeping parts of the world. It is called “The Blue Whale Challenge.” We are not talking about the largest animal known to have ever existed; we are talking about a “game” in which a challenge is to commit suicide.

You heard right, read on.

It is not a downloadable game, application or software. It enters social media through secretive groups. This how the game works: It is said to involve 50 challenges that are monitored by a curator; they include watching horror movies and inflicting self-harm. Participants are expected to take photos of themselves undertaking the challenge and upload them as proof for the curator’s approval. The last challenge is to commit suicide.

In 2016, Filipp Budeykin, a “curator” of the challenge, was arrested for aiding suicides. The 22-year-old, who later pleaded guilty, said the victims were “biological waste” and that he was “cleansing society.” He was associated with at least 15 Blue Whale suicides. The death of a 14-year-old Mumbai boy earlier this month, who apparently jumped off the roof of his house, sparked rumors that he did it as a dare while playing the online game.

So what needs to be done?

The government has directed top internet platforms — Goggle, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Microsoft and Yahoo — to immediately take down any links leading to the “deadly game.”

Parents: Monitor your child’s search history, text messages, call logs and communications on social media sites; limit usage of these apps. Use parental control software that allows you to see all keyboard strokes made on the child’s device. Talk to your child about the game. If it is spreading to your school, alert teachers and parents. Look for behavior changes like being withdrawn, persistent low mood, tearfulness and irritability, loss of interest in favorite things, problems with eating and sleeping. Do not give out personal information. (In this game, the administrator gets information from children. In case they try to leave a challenge, the administrator threatens them with exposure or harm to their family.)

If the Blue Whale game is indeed a hoax, the fact remains that it has created an international buzz. This, in turn, may have ensured that it becomes real, even if it were not in the first place. Perhaps our teens’ mental health is the real issue. That’s for another column.

Meanwhile, parents and family members need to remain vigilant when it comes to our children. Here are a couple helpful phone numbers and websites you may want to save: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-8255; Tri-County Help Center 800-695-1639 or StopBullying.gov; DoSomething.org.

Bullying of any kind should never be tolerated. Start young. Start early to keep the lines of communication open.

COMMENTS