Blue Whale Challenge: Online Game Leading to Suicide?

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:

Parents Warned in the UK about New Suicide Game

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!

Talking to Kids about Livestream Violence

We need to talk about the threat of our kids becoming desensitized to livestream violence.

This past Sunday, a man livestreamed a cold-blooded murder he committed against a stranger. It’s been reported that the innocent victim was walking home from an Easter celebration with his family. The killer has since been found, he killed himself. I watched some of the livestream video of the killing — it was chilling. The kind of chilling where I haven’t been able to sleep after seeing that sweet man’s face. I can’t even imagine the grief of the family. Out of respect for their privacy, I am not sharing the video link here.

On March 19, 2017, there was a gang rape of a 15-year-old girl livestreamed on Facebook. Pause right there and reread that. It really happened. Can you imagine the trauma of this young girl and her family? You can click here for an article with additional information.

My prayers go to these victims and their families. I can’t imagine either scenario. Surreal.

Parents. It is difficult for us to process these things as they are livestreamed. Our kids are growing up in an online world where this is becoming normal. We can’t EVER let this be normalized! What can we do as parents?

We must, must TALK to our kids about having their guard up. Livestreamed violence can desensitize our children to the fact that real people with real feelings are involved. (That’s a direct quote from my book where I talk about desensitization as being one of the four main things we need to cover with our kids before implementing social media.) We can’t raise a generation of kids who scroll past a murder without batting an eye. This is a MUST-HAVE conversation with our kids.

You can start this discussion with an open-ended question like this, “Have you heard about or seen any online videos where people are hurting someone else?” (It is already trending so it’s likely your kids have already seen/heard about it or will very soon.)

Here are some talking/teaching points for this conversation:

-It is our own responsibility to protect our minds from violent livestream videos. Teach kids to turn it off. I tell my own children, “Once you get the picture in your head, it’s difficult to get it out.”

-Don’t share violent videos. Instead, report them to the social media platform to be taken down. Be the solution. Have respect for the victims and their privacy.

-There is a soul behind that screen. These victims are people with families who love them. These are REAL people.

-Violence is never okay. These are crimes punishable by law. This is REAL life being livestreamed on social media (we must stop applying the “social media isn’t real” standard to everything — this statement may apply to things like comparison and jealousy, but it doesn’t fit the same mold when it comes to livestreamed violence.) This IS real life on social media. This man was murdered & taken from his family. This little girl was raped.

-I love what my heads-up mama tells me: “Arm, don’t alarm.” We need to talk to our kids about livestreamed violence because they are already seeing it online or hearing about it from their friends (who saw it online). We must remain calm. We don’t want to create fear, but we do need to educate. We can’t stay silent and let them process it by themselves. Remember, “Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you.” Isaiah 41:10

What else? What would you add to this conversation?

Let’s Talk about Roblox

We need to talk about Roblox. It’s a rapidly-growing game with millions of kids playing each day, and a whole lot of fun! It’s creative because users can create their own games and content changes frequently. Kids seems to love that — it doesn’t get old or boring. Roblox is the server or the umbrella, but under that, there are many games (over 15 million according to their website) created by users.

First, I need to tell you the story of what prompted this post. My kids have played this game for several months as we’ve all been learning it. They always “game” in an open area of our home (no screens behind closed doors are allowed). They have their accounts in privacy mode. According to the Roblox website (see pic below), “locked privacy settings prevent contact from people they don’t know. These players must first become friends with another user before certain activities are allowed, such as messaging, following into game, and playing in private servers.”

This gives the impression that our kids are protected from strangers. They are not. It’s a false sense of security. Strangers still got to interact with my kids within the game!

A couple months ago, my child’s private account had a stranger in the game who started asking personal questions. I was in my kitchen, she was at our kitchen island. A stranger reached out to my daughter literally right in front of my face, and I wouldn’t have had a clue if she didn’t tell me!! Think about if a stranger came up to your kid in the grocery store and started asking her name, city, school, etc. — we would flip out!! We need to be on guard, Parents!!

My child knew what to do because we continually talk about online strangers. She wrote back “Stalker! Bye Felicia” (ha!) and reported the activity. By the way, I LOVE the Roblox reporting screen — I took a screenshot for you (see pic below). We highlighted “personal question” because that’s not allowed. We reported it.

After all this happened, I’ve been researching this in more detail. Here are my primary concerns with Roblox:

1) Content. There are many, many different games to play created by users within Roblox (which is why it’s so fun and creative). Some of the game content is inappropriate. They change often and new games become available so it’s a constant monitoring situation for content. Their website says Roblox is for ages 8-18. I do not want my third grader shooting others with guns on a screen (Prison Life) or killing people (Murder Mystery). Also, cussing is all over the place so the younger your child is, the more you want to talk with them about it (as you can see, swearing is at the top of the list for the reporting screen). Strangers playing along your child can basically write anything they want. When you’re not in privacy mode, you can even move to a private area to play.

2) Strangers. We have to keep talking to our kids about online strangers. People will lie about who they are to build a relationship with your child. I’ve been talking to my kids for years (even before my oldest had her own phone) about not talking to people online. I often say, “You wouldn’t open the front door of our house without mom or dad so don’t ever talk, text, comment, chat, etc. with someone you don’t know online.” This morning, had I not had all those conversations, it could’ve been the start of a relationship forming with a complete stranger.

We must also maintain a balance. I’ve learned that going into crazy mom-mode doesn’t solve anything. It puts up walls and destroys the parent-child relationship. Normally, our kids don’t want to report bad stuff to us because they’re afraid we’ll take away the app. If my child does nothing wrong, I don’t punish them! I actually reward them. Create a teachable moment from it. Talk again about the dangers of online strangers. Do your research. I didn’t make my kids delete Roblox. They are still playing. BUT, I said to them, “You have been given this freedom because you are reporting and not talking to strangers. If I check your accounts and find otherwise, you will no longer play.” Then, I shared a real-life story of a kid who has taken by on online stranger.

We see it over and over again. Every site. Every app. I had my settings set to the highest security. Bad content or questionable material (a stranger asking way too many personal questions) still got through to my child. Restrictions are a tool to use, but they’re not THE answer. The answer is OPEN COMMUNICATION. My new book, TALK: A Practical Approach to Cyberparenting and Open Communication, points to this solution as I cover each topic individually.

Also, I need to add — when I reached out to parents, I found that most are YOUNGER kids on this app. In fact, there are tech-savvy parents on our team who have older kids (late middle and high school) but have never heard of this one. It’s new and our YOUNG elementary kids are playing it!

FYI — You can go to the Roblox website for more information. Click on the “FAQ” tab.

*I wrote this back in Jan on the nextTalk FB page, but wanted to post it on my blog so it could be easily found. You can find more info about our nonprofit organization at nextTalk.org.