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Understanding the Blue Whale Game’s Teen Appeal

The tragic death of 14-year-old Manpreet Singh, of Mumbai, has stirred up concern around the Blue Whale Game, an online ‘game’ in which young people must complete escalating tasks from an administrator that culminates in an instruction to commit suicide. It’s important to note that police have repeatedly said there is to date no evidence linking Singh’s death to the game (also known as the Blue Whale Challenge), but understandably, parents are still concerned by the game’s spectre. Yet, what is getting lost – amid hasty and ultimately untenable calls for stricter cyber security from the government and more vigilance by parents – is why teens might be drawn to a game like this in the first place.

Teens have a developmental drive to feel a sense of belonging, agency, and autonomy. When they achieve this, their brain rewards them with a powerful release of dopamine, the ‘happy hormone.’ Fitting in, being a part of something, being recognized by others, taking risks – these things make us all feel good, but they make teens feel especially good; the levels of dopamine in our bodies are highest in the teen years, the need for reward and validation strongest – and their counterparts, rejection and unhappiness, feel most intense. This the biological backdrop to the stereotypical moody teen, but it also explains why a young person might be drawn to something like the Blue Whale Game. With its clear challenge-accomplishment-reward structure, it’s a straightforward path for teens to feel good about themselves. The validation they receive from the administrator, and the recognition and, perhaps, admiration they receive from peer ‘players’ as they progress through increasingly dangerous challenges, feeds their most basic developmental needs.

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It also allows teens an element of control over their lives. Purpose and agency are difficult to come by in the teen years; just as teens start to yearn for autonomy, parents and schools are often cracking down hardest, telling teens what to do, how to do it, and what not to do. Something like the Blue Whale Game, at least from a teen’s perspective, offers them clear meaning and control: The purpose is to complete/win the ‘game’; whether they do so or not is entirely up to the decisions and actions they take. (An adult with a mature brain can recognize the unhealthy power dynamics of an administrator who ‘assigns’ tasks; a teen brain may not.)

The potential danger lies in the fact that the teen brain is still developing. The part of the brain – the prefrontal cortex – that will enable them to stop, think critically, consider consequences and put on the brakes – won’t fully develop until their mid-20s. Physically, biologically, mentally – teens are only so-so at understanding that they’re not invincible, the consequences of some actions are permanent, and their actions have an impact on others. Which means they are vulnerable to making bad choices, whether it’s within the Blue Whale paradigm, or scenarios with more benign consequences.

But what makes teens so susceptible is also the very ray of light parents are looking for: Teens may not be able to always evaluate consequences,but they can improve given opportunities and support from parents. Until their brains are fully mature, and the rational part of the brain balances out the risk-and-reward-seeking part, teens learn responsible behavior through practice, and guidance from their role models: parents.

The answer to how to protect teens from the Blue Whale Challenge and other dangerous and appealing situations doesn’t lie in imposing more and more severe limitations and monitoring on teens. Part of this developmental stage is that teens will naturally look to circumvent such limitations, and where we block one online challenge, another will appear in its place.

Parents should instead be looking to empower teens to exercise their own judgment, within the boundaries parents have set for them. Practicing rational decision-making, and weighing consequences with a parent’s support and supervision, is the only way for teens to develop these skills for the next time they face the allure of risky activity on their own.

Unfortunately, this is not the quick-fix reaction society looks for when threats like the Blue Whale Game emerge, but it’s the only thing that actually works. This effort starts in the preteen years. Parents need to set reasonable boundaries on behaviour and help preteens find outlets for social connectedness and purpose – outlets beyond academics. Parents also need to talk to kids about being good digital citizens – about thinking critically about the news, and ‘communities’ they stumble onto online. We also need to actively pursue kids’ opinions and thoughts – and listen with an open mind when they share them. Teens who feel heard, valued and respected at home are less likely to pursue those feelings from external – and potentially dangerous – sources.

Teen suicide is tragic whenever and however it happens. But if we want to prevent it, the answer is not to clamp down in a furor of authoritarian panic. The only way to prevent teens from participating in dangerous online activity is to try to understand why it might appeal to them, what they might be getting out of it – and how we can give them the same feelings of validation, respect, and independence in healthier ways.

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