School officials in Natick, Massachusetts, have joined other districts across the country warning of a game that apparently encourages children to commit suicide.
The game, called the Blue Whale Challenge, has parents and educators concerned about the consequences. The challenge is targeted at teens, who are told to download an app, from which they get 50 different assignments, which include self-harm. The last one is to kill themselves.
"I first found out about it on the Natick Moms Facebook page and it was quite scary because it seems like it's something that encourages kids to kill themselves,” said Athena Pandolf, a mom in Natick. "And that is really a scary thing."
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"I want to make families aware of a new social media app that I just learned about which could have serious implications," Natick Superintendent Peter Sanchioni said in a statement. "The Blue Whale Challenge is an app that instructs its participants (many preteens) to carry out increasingly dangerous tasks and self-harm over 50 days. Users are encouraged to tag friends on social media and challenge them to participate in the game."
"It is a concern because kids can get so excited about it because it seems like it's a thing to do," said Natick mom Jan Snyder. "Other kids are doing it, and sometimes they might like as a challenge as well, but it's really unsafe."
The game's origin is murky and it unclear whether it has actually been linked to any deaths. The game is said to have been blamed for suicides in Russia, but the fact-checking website Snopes has not been able to verify those claims. Their most recently updated post dates from last month.
As of Friday morning, a version of the "Blue Whale Challenge" app was listed for download on Google's Play store with some reviews warning not to use the "suicide app." The app is no longer available on Google Play, the company confirmed to NBC early in the afternoon.
"Blue Whale Challenge is a controversial game that has spread throughout various European chat boards, now you can experience the thrill from the comfort of your own phone," the app's description said. "Disclaimer: We are not affiliated with or support the BlueWhale game. This is a fun, constructive task based game designed to challenge you, give you experiences and provoke thoughts that you may not have ever had before. This game was not made to be malicious, if you don't want to do a task, you don't have to!”
A Google spokesman said the company doesn't comment on specific apps but does remove those that violate their policies. Apps that promote self harm or that offer instructions on how to commit suicide, are against their policy against violence.
Still, apps like the Blue Whale Challenge have taken different names and forms before they are caught. A year and a half ago Google initiated an app review process to catch policy violaters earlier in the process. The company also relies on users and developers to flag potential offenders.
Social media outlets are rife with discussions about the game and the companies have taken notice. On Instagram, a search of the challenge prompts the message, "if you're going through something difficult, we'd like to help." It includes a link for ways to get support. YouTube also displays information for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Crisis Text Link.
Dr. Ellen Braaten, an expert in child psychology with Massachusetts General Hospital, warns that these types of games or challenges can tempt vulnerable young people.
"It's mostly troubling because it's the kind of thing that adolescents can get drawn into," said Dr. Braaten. "Not necessarily to act out but adolescence is a very emotional kind of time, and this is very emotionally ridden kind of game."
School officials in Natick are urging parents to monitor their kids' social media, and to ask them about any new games or challenges that are making the rounds.
The San Francisco-based group Common Sense Media also advises parents to try to help their children think through the potential risks of internet challenges like the Blue Whale Challenge and to also model responsible habits themselves.
If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text "SAFE" to 741-741.