In deep alleys of the Web and on popular social media sites, users from around the world are trying to get on a game. After reports of a Mumbai lad who committed suicide recently, allegedly due to the Blue Whale challenge, the number of Indians trying to get on is growing exponentially. Some of the messages, posted on vk.com, a social networking website based out of Russia (where the game is believed to have originated), are heartbreaking. “Please someone, find me, I can’t live anymore,” writes a 17-year-old girl. “I would like to play please. kill me,” reads another post. Hashtags become a way to express distress, instead of seeking help in real life.
Urban teens and mental disorders
The overarching narrative has been of a “killer game” that compels normal teenagers into committing suicide. What this narrative ignores is that a huge number of youngsters seeking to play the game may already be prone to mental disorders such as depression or anxiety. The prevalence of mental disorders in teenagers is corroborated by countrywide studies. The National Mental Health Survey (NMHS) 2015-16 published by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru estimated that nearly one in seven teenagers growing up in India’s metros could be suffering from mental health disorders. The study put the prevalence of mental disorders in the age group of 13-17 years in the urban metros at 13.5%, nearly double the countrywide prevalence (7.3%).
NIMHANS Director Dr. B.N. Gangadhar says the findings point to a glaring gap between the number of teenagers who received professional assistance and the number of youngsters in need for it. “There is no question that children need more attention than they are getting. With nuclear families and lesser interaction with peers, children these days depend just on their parents, who may both be working and busy with their day-to-day lives,” he says. He adds that the higher prevalence in urban areas more than in rural settings needs to be investigated closely.
Data from Bengaluru study
Another NIMHANS study of 2016, which assessed 800 adolescents studying in English-medium schools in Bengaluru, found that 18% were at risk for subclinical depression. Subclinical depression is a condition in which a person has symptoms which signify a chance of depression but does not meet the criteria for a depressive disorder. The study noted that teenage girls were at a higher risk for experiencing depressive symptoms than boys, and that the overall prevalence was higher than statistics obtained from similar studies in the West.
Adding to the cocktail is the ease with which this age group has access to technology. Today, many youngsters get their own smart devices before they hit their teens and more often than not, parents are clueless about how easy it is to bypass ‘parental controls’ installed on these devices. At the Service for Healthy Use of Technology (SHUT) clinic, India’s first technology de-addiction clinic set up by NIMHANS, a majority of patients who visited it were youngsters in the age group of 16-20 who were socially withdrawn after getting addicted to online gaming and social media. Manoj Kumar Sharma, Associate Professor at NIMHANS and head of the SHUT clinic, says that many of these youngsters show a decline in their academic performance and social skills after becoming addicted. “Some may be introverts by nature or may have become withdrawn after getting addicted to the online world,” says Dr. Sharma. “When parents intervene, teenagers respond with anger, irritability, and in a few cases, [resort to] self harm,” he adds. Every week, the clinic sees four to five such cases.
These are the impressionable minds that online challenges such as Blue Whale target. The game has also led to “positive” challenges becoming popular on the Internet such as The Happy Blue Whale Challenge and The Pink Whale challenge which help youngsters learn methods to cope with depression and low moods. For someone wondering whether they are suffering from depression, there is a vast array of information online they can use.
As news trickles in about the extent of damage caused in India by those behind the Blue Whale challenge, adults and children alike would do well to check in on their peers. Depression can be a killer, and sometimes even a trivial online game can push someone to a place of no return.