Lubbock Police Lt. Ray Mendoza, commander with the Family Crimes Unit, said the department has been looking into the Blue Whale Challenge, a social-media driven challenge that provides participants with a list of tasks – the final one being suicide.
While the macabre challenge has no Lubbock ties, it was a case about 385 miles in San Antonio last month that left officials and parents educating themselves after a 15-year-old boy reportedly took his own life while his suicide broadcasted on social media.
For Mendoza, social media usage and safety should be a continuous conversation between children and their guardians.
“Keep that conversation going with them,” he said. “Ask them if they’ve heard of this Blue Whale Challenge, and I encourage them for it to be a conversation not a lecture. Talk to them about it and the dangers they know about — for example, what happened in San Antonio — and teach them to say ‘no’. Practice it with them, rehearse it with them. Saying ‘no’ is very important for a young child who thinks they need to go along with the flow or go along with the challenge even, when it comes to a point where they’re gonna hurt themselves.”
According to Mendoza, the challenge has been popular on all social media platforms, but especially Snapchat and Instagram.
Targeting teens, individuals are invited to participate in the challenge that contains 50 varied tasks that are given to the participant daily by an administrator.
Like Mendoza, Sharron Davis with Contact Lubbock, a local suicide hotline, said she has no evidence that any local teens are participating in the Blue Whale Challenge.
The online challenge did not begin in the United States.
“It’s been going on in Russia for about three years,” Davis said. But she said people only realized the connection between several suicides when a girl did not finish the final task and notified authorities instead.
Davis said she is monitoring the situation locally and worldwide, including reading alerts online about the challenge. After San Antonio teen Isaiah Gonzales reportedly committed suicide on July 8, she said, his family pieced together information he left behind and talked to the media about his death. His death is one of only two known to have occurred in the United States, although more — perhaps more than 130 — have been reported worldwide.
According to the Associated Press, parents have said teens reach out to game administrators through various social media outlets. The leaders encourage the players to go through 50 days of challenges ranging from watching scary movie clips to cutting symbols into their own arms and legs.
In order for the task to be proven successful, Mendoza said the participant must record or take a photo of themselves completing the assignment which can range from mutilation to suicide.
The challenge then becomes a form of extortion, he said, as participants are required to follow through with the tasks as they believe their family’s lives are at risk.
Learning as much as they can about the participant, he said, is part of the administrator’s grooming process.
The family of the teen in San Antonio told reporters the person issuing the challenge tasks to the teen over the internet gathered personal information about him and threatened to harm his family, according to the AP.
Davis said she is unsure from her research whether teens know the end goal of the challenge is for them to kill themselves.
“It seems like they attract the kids in by doing these stupid things,” she said.
When teens are in it far enough, perhaps they feel like they have to follow through on the final task, she said.
“Parents have no clue; they have no clue what’s going on,” Davis said.
But she has a few words of advice to help parents stay on top of things.
First of all, make your kids use computers and smartphones in a central area, and don’t let them use them in their room. Also, keep an eye on what apps your kids are using and on what they are doing online, Davis said.
Urging parents to get involved by learning their child’s user names and passwords, Mendoza said he recommends parents access their child’s social media accounts through their devices to help them keep tabs on their online activity.
“What I want (parents) to know is that we have not seen any cases like this in Lubbock,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean it’s not going on. So we definitely encourage parents to get involved in their kid’s social media. Again, go through their search engines and find what they’ve been looking up. You can hit search on Instagram you can hit search on their Facebook, and it will show what they’ve been looking up so get involved, don’t take any chances with this kind of stuff. Don’t get involved when it’s too late.”
This is a strategy backed by the FBI, according the AP.
Agent Michelle Lee of the FBI’s San Antonio office urged parents to monitor their children’s online activities.
“It’s a reminder of one of the many dangers and vulnerabilities that children face using various social media and apps online every day,” Lee said. “Parents must remain vigilant and monitor their child’s usage of the internet.”
Second, she said, eating a good family dinner together does more than provide nourishment.
“It’s been proven by science that, if you have dinner with your kids at least four times a week, they’re not going to get depressed, they’re not going to get bullied, because they have a family unit they can count on,” she said.
Third, she said parents must talk to their children about suicide and specifically about the Blue Whale Challenge.
“Most parents are going to shy away from talking about Blue Whale because they’re afraid of it,” Davis said.
Parents must be alert, she said finally.
During summer, Davis said children and teens are home alone and bored. They might think an online game looks fun, and not realize the end goal.
“It’s not fun. It’s deadly,” she said.
As far as things to look for, Mendoza said images of whales along with “blue whale” hashtags are often associated with the challenge.
“If you think that some kind of cynical challenge has been presented to your child, such as this blue whale challenge,” he said, “you should definitely contact us and let us know about it so we can start a proactive approach to hopefully catch the culprit or the perp in these situations so that we can end it.”
To speak to someone locally, call Contact Lubbock at 806-765-8393. To talk to someone nationally, call the National Talk Line at 800-273-8255, or text them at 741741. Calls and texts are free and confidential, and you do not have to be in a crisis to reach out.