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UPDATE: 'Blue Whale': SA concerns, but is it real?

Blue whale

A screengrab of the 'Blue Whale' game.

Editor's note: This story has been updated for greater clarity and accuracy as more information has emerged about the true extent of what the Blue Whale concept may be.

While concern has been raised over the possible emergence of the so-called Blue Whale game or challenge in South Africa, those looking into the existence of the phenomenon believe there is enough to warrant being on alert and monitoring developments.

The phrase Blue Whale has made international headlines in recent months, and it has a number of local organisations, including the South African Depression and Anxiety Group and the Films and Publications Board, concerned teenagers here may soon be exposed to similar dangers.

Talk of the concept is believed to have originated in Russia where it was linked to a number of teenage suicides, although it was later found that there was no hard evidence in any of these cases. While some commentators say Blue Whale - which also seems to go by A Sea of Whales or A Silent House or Wake me Up at 4:20am - is available as a digital application, there is very little to show that this is true.

It seems the mystery around what it is has been further hidden in a swirl of misnomers, hearsay and vague language.

One theory is that the game is downloaded onto a computer or smartphone and the user is then presented with daily tasks by an assigned administrator. The challenges are dangerous and sinister, with users encouraged to kill themselves on the 50th and final day.

Another theory is that the phrase - and those like it - are the names of forums on which vulnerable teens discuss suicide and self-mutilation, but that there is no sinister being or group which actively pushes the participants to harm themselves.

Social media analyst and MD of Black Box Theory Yavi Madurai - who has been researching the game - and insists it does in fact exist - despite the fact that there is very little tangible proof.

"Yes, we haven't got it in South Africa as yet but it doesn't mean it's not going to hit us. Generally when it comes to these kinds of things, whether positive or negative, things that trend we tend to pick it up two to three months later. And that's just because we have our own stuff going on and the way things like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook [work] is that they have a localised situation where we see things come up on our feeds that are more local. So one person needs to pick it up or you have one death and then all of a sudden you see that it will spread like wildfire, it will go viral.

"It's late but it doesn't mean it's not going to hit us."

In Kenya, the Film and Classifications Board has banned the game as they believe two recent suicides in the country can be blamed on these challenges. The Board's CEO Ezekial Matua says they received complaints from parents about children

Matua says from what it knows it's not an application that you download but rather a game that people start. He insists it is real and it is dangerous.

Authorities in Nairobi have also contacted the local Film and Publications Board (FPB) to warn it about the dangers teens could face.

The FPB says its officials will be communicating with authorities in Kenya about this issue and it will monitor the developments.

But Nechama Brodie - the head of Tri-Fact training and research at Africa Check - says there is nothing to suggest such an app or website exists.

"What we've seen - and this is a pattern that gets repeated over and over again - is that sometimes viral stories that came out of someone's imagination, that were completely fictional, become real over time because we've invested so much interest in them. So it didn't exist before but not it exists as a concept."

She says the information on Blue Whale fits a "very classic profile of typical hoaxes and scares that we see around vulnerable populations and around teenagers in particular."

The real issue is teen suicides

Despite the veracity of these claims about Blue Whale, the real issue is why troubled teens choose to take their own lives and why they would seek out other people in similar situations.

Brodie says when "making a myth like Blue Whale real" it detracts from dealing with the "real problem".

"The real people that we should be paying attention to are teenagers who are vulnerable and teenagers at risk, and instead of promoting steers around some new platform that nobody in more than a year has been able to prove actually exists we should really be speaking to experts, speaking to our children - and not about the fear - but speaking to them about the many other factors which may influence their behaviour."

Commenting on the reportage and claims of Blue Whale University of Cape Town lecturer and commentator Jacques Rousseau writes that "everybody should be particularly attentive to not encouraging mystical thinking about life and its travails."

He further asks: "So, if you’re going to amplify Blue Whale, your first responsibility is surely to de-mythologise it, and to emphasise agency rather than buying into the narrative that there is an app that might kill you, or cause you to kill yourself?"

Counselling psychologist Jeremy Bayer says it's important to discover the internet with your child or teenager. Parents need to set rules when it comes to social media. Youngsters also need to be taught that what's unacceptable in day to day life is also unacceptable online: "Just as you would discourage bullying, you will discourage cyber bullying".

WATCH: Yavi Madurai talks about concerns on teenage suicide.

Eyewitness News has come across a number of teenagers on Twitter and on social network site Vk.com (a social network used mainly in Russia) who regularly post pictures seemingly showing a whale carved into their arms or cuts on their lips.

Many youngsters also show a keen interest in playing this game and have joined "death groups" where like-minded individuals encourage each other to commit suicide.

While this may seem unimaginable, the trend has been reported across the globe. Two Russian teenagers, who are possible victims, jumped from a fourteen storey building. One of the teens, Yulia Konstantinova, apparently posted a picture of a blue whale on Instagram and left a note saying "end" on her social media page. A Russian newspaper apparently linked 130 teen suicides to Blue Whale. However, according to fact-checking site Snopes, there's no proof that the game is directly responsible for the suicides:

"The claim that the 'blue whale' suicide game (named after the way whales sometimes beach themselves and then die) had resulted in a wave of suicides appears to have originated with a misinterpretation of a May 2016 story from the Russian site Novaya Gazeta. That article reported dozens of suicides of children in Russia during a six-month span, asserting that some of the people who had taken their lives were part of the same online game community on VK.com, a social media network based out of St. Petersburg, Russia:

'We counted 130 suicides of children that occurred in Russia from November 2015 to April 2016 (!) – Almost all of them were members of the same group on the Internet.'

While Russia's Novaya Gazeta reported that “at least” 80 of the suicides were linked to these “blue whale” games, an investigation by Radio Free Europe found that no suicides had been definitively linked to these online communities."

There have now been reported cases in several parts of Europe, South America and more recently in Kenya where the game has apparently been banned.

What can you do?

Madurai says it's almost impossible to try and stop a game, app, challenge or chat group from being accessible and even if social media sites are able to do so, a new game or app will soon emerge.

Instagram, for instance, has posted a warning note when searching for #bluewhale. The message reads: "Posts with words or tags you're searching for often encourage behavior that can cause harm and even lead to death. If you're going through something difficult, we'd like to help."

Madurai says parents, teachers and leaders in society need to be aware of the dangers of such games but more importantly, she says they need to be tech savvy. She says parents, for instance, should spend some time learning about social media and what platforms their children use.

Cathy Chambers from the South African Depression and Anxiety Group says they are aware of the Blue Whale phenomenon, saying it's very concerning that this type of game can influence teenagers to perform these challenges.

She says the group is monitoring the situation to see if any cases are reported in South Africa.

However, Chambers says parents can prepare and do have control: "It is very concerning but I think for a parent it is really a time now that we can prepare if it [the game] does hit the shores. Again we also have to remember that this is online, so parents have a bit more control here as to what access their children have."

In the past 24 hours, a number of UK news sites, including BBC.co.uk and Wired.co.uk, have reported that the man behind the game is being held on charges of inciting at least 16 schoolgirls to kill themselves by taking part in the Blue Whale game. It's understood the 21-year-old Russian has confessed to the crimes and he reportedly says the victims were happy to die and he was merely "cleansing society".

For help contact the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG).

To contact a counsellor between 8am-8pm Monday to Sunday call 011 234 4837.

For a suicidal emergency contact SADAG on 0800 567 567.

SADAG 24-hour helpline 0800 12 13 14

SMS 31393 (and SADAG will call you back)

SADAG can also be contacted on Facebook and Twitter.

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