Before we go into panic mode, let’s breathe. Our first response cannot be fear and emotion. Remember: remain calm.
First, I want to give you the background and context from where this post is coming from. I want to share some research we’ve been conducting at our nonprofit (nextTalk) on this challenge.
This was first brought to our attention last month. This is the article we received claiming this “game” had led to an increase in teen suicides:
Our team went to work researching and talking with local parents to see if they’d heard of the game. We researched on Snopes, and even though it was marked as “Unproven” there were details given to explain where the game originated and details about how it works. You can review the Snopes article by clicking here. In my interpretation and opinion, Snopes can’t prove that the game has actually led to an increase in suicides, but they can confirm the game (and games like it) do exist.
We didn’t share last month because we could find no substantiated claims in the U.S. However, now there is breaking news reports that this game has surfaced in Alabama.
Due to this new development, we decided to post applicable links on our nextTalk FB page last night.
Before we move on, I want to cover one point. It was reported with the Alabama story that there is an app to download. We cannot find an app. I have my suspicions that it was reported incorrectly. We know the pattern. Kids communicate within apps. We are likely to find secret challenges such as these in closed groups, group snaps (which automatically disappear but can be screenshot), DMs (direct messages), etc. That’s why monitoring text messages doesn’t work anymore. It’s important to note that most people, including myself, don’t intentionally communicate within apps to hide things, it’s just the new way of talking. For example, I love Snapchat because it doesn’t take up all my storage!
Back to the Blue Whale Game. How did I address it with my teen? Because we continually talk about everything (including stuff in the online world), we had a simple conversation on the way to school:
Me: “Hey, have you heard about this blue whale challenge?”
Teen: “Nope. What’s it about?”
Me: “Well, a person asks you to complete tasks. They may start out as simple requests like listening to a song or posting a weird picture, but there are reports that it turns into self-harming and then the ultimate challenge is suicide.”
Teen: “Sounds a lot like the grooming we talk about.”
Me: “Yes. Good comparison. Whether this challenge becomes widespread or not or is even true, the key here is to never be manipulated or controlled by someone, especially online.”
If parents get ahead of this sick challenge, it’s likely kids won’t think it’s cool. They’ll move on to something else. So, this post is not just about this game. Whether it becomes a twisted trend, disappears quickly or is even a complete hoax, we need to look at the bigger picture. No matter what fad is happening right now, parenting has changed. “13 Reasons Why” was yesterday. Today is the “Blue Whale” challenge. Tomorrow, it will be something else.
This is not about parenting one app, game or issue. This is an opportunity to build open communication with our kids so they won’t fall prey to online manipulation.
How does my teen even know about “grooming?” We continually talk about it. This relationship didn’t naturally happen. After many mistakes, I realized I needed to be very intentional and proactive about building a safe place for her. We started way before she had her own phone.
For example, we discuss how online predators groom their victims. They are patient and nice. They give gifts. They are the “secret online pal.” They sometimes meet up with the child & do nothing. They know how to build trust. When parents find out about the relationship, the parents are rightfully upset. Then, there is the perfect set-up for the predator to swoop-in & tell the child “Your parents are so mean. But, you’ve got me. I’m the only one in your corner. I’m the only one who understands.” And then, the parents are the bad guys. When the young innocent child feels safe with the predator, they often run away together. Manipulate them. Use them for sex trafficking. Now, we’re seeing coercion into cutting and suicide. Online manipulation has many forms.
This is dark. It is happening all around us to good kids with loving parents. Our kids are being manipulated by evil. Sometimes, these convos are happening on their devices as they’re sitting right next to us on the family sectional!
Right about now, you may be feeling sick to your stomach … How in the world do I keep up with all this? Every day, there’s something else in the online world that I need to talk to my kids about.
First of all, you are not alone. Cyberparenting has blindsided all of us. We’re the first generation of parents to deal with this. We can’t call our parents and ask advice on how to handle the digital world. Everything is happening faster. Questions are coming earlier from our kids. All because of online exposure and the rapidly-changing technology at our fingertips. There is a shift in parenting we must recognize. Once I recognized it, I thought, Okay, I understand. But, how do I parent it?
Here’s what I can tell you. There is absolutely no way to keep up with every app, challenge, DM, snap, etc. It is impossible. So, what is the answer? The first line of defense is the relationship with your child. A healthy, ongoing dialogue. Know your child. Once you build that foundation of trust, there is no more fear about what they are seeing and hearing … because they will ask you.
When I had my lightbulb moment four years ago, I realized I had totally missed it. Our relationship was good, but we were not talking about the online world. I cover our story and give details about how we turned things around in my newly released book, TALK: A Practical Approach to Cyberparenting and Open Communication. In fact, I specifically address four things you need to discuss with your children before they get social media in Chapter 10. One of these topics is cyberstrangers. This conversation needs to start early.
Talk before they get a phone. With my youngest, he is nine and does not have a phone. But, we do have a family iPad. He’s into gaming. So, we talk about “chat features” in gaming and how we don’t communicate with strangers. They could lie and say they’re 9 or 10, but could actually be a 60-year-old bad guy. I talk casually over meals, in the car, etc. so I don’t create anxiety or fear, but bring awareness to this danger. I roleplay with him on how to respond if a stranger reaches out to him in a game. We have a family guideline that all account names have to be fake. No real names. I specifically tell him, “Don’t tell anyone where you go to school, where we live, your real name, etc.”
Explain the dangers of cyberstrangers. One thing we always say to our kids, “You wouldn’t open the front door of our house to a stranger without mom or dad so do not talk, text, comment, snap, DM or otherwise communicate with a stranger online.” We never know the intention of the person behind the screen. Always take precaution.
Remain calm. When your child shows you anything inappropriate s/he sees online (like pornography), it’s important to be calm. A crazy-mom response that I’ve been guilty of is, “No more technology. Delete that app.” That creates a wall in the relationship. Then, the child wants to report nothing because they don’t want to lose technology. Instead, I’ve learned to respond with, “I’m so proud of you for telling me. Let’s talk about this.” (I have a whole pornography chapter too!) FYI, my teen daughter has been contacted multiple times by strangers trying to communicate. When she reports that to me, I’ve learned to always respond with, “Wow. I’m so proud of you. This is what I’m talking about. I can trust you to navigate yourself through the online world because you’re prepared.”
Don’t get overwhelmed. I want to end with this. We are in this together. Let’s not be overwhelmed. Instead, let’s pour time and energy to build the foundation for open communication with our kids. Then, and only then, we will have nothing to fear online because we’re talking about everything.
We are all struggling. I promise, you are not alone. Our nonprofit is continually providing updated resources for you on this cyberparenting journey. We just launched nextTalk Radio last week. If you’re in San Antonio, tune in to AM630 every Saturday morning at 10a. My co-host, Kim Elerick and I will be discussing all the things we’re struggling with today. If you’re not in San Antonio, podcasts will be coming soon on our website. Stay tuned!