Let’s face it, the social media world is scary. Especially for parents. We try to protect our children from on-line predators and bullies. We try to educate them about using apps on their phone and appropriate rules for interacting with others. Sometimes we focus so much on them that we forget we must also educate ourselves. Then there are times where we lose focus and forget that our children don’t just need rules and lectures, they need us.

Enter social media challenges. You probably remember some harmless challenges, like the Mannequin Challenge, or the Harlem Shake. Plus, there are awareness-raising challenges, like the 22 Push-Ups (soldier suicide) or the Ice Bucket Challenge (ALS).

Do you also recall the Cinnamon Challenge (swallow a tablespoon of cinnamon without liquids – could result in choking and respiratory problems)? The Salt and Ice Challenge was popular several years ago (put salt on your skin, then hold ice on it, and see how long you can stand the burning sensation – could result  in frostbite or third degree burns). The Choking Game was popular with those wanting a temporary “high” (choke to temporarily cut off oxygen to the brain – could result in death). Then there was the Fire Challenge (pour flammable liquid on self and light it – could result in serious burns or death).

Enter our newest social media challenge. The Blue Whale Challenge. This new craze is so controversial that people can’t even decide if it’s real or not. It allegedly started in Russia, spread to Europe, and has now made it to the Americas. The challenge involves 50 tasks that start off as seemingly harmless (watch a scary movie) and then progressively get more dangerous or intense (carve in your skin, stand on the edge of a high building). These tasks are assigned by a “whale” or curator, and evidence of task completion is sent via social media.

The way to “win” the challenge is by completing suicide. While broadcasting it on social media.

Yes, you read that correctly. To “win” this challenge, you have to kill yourself. As a parent and therapist – geez, as a HUMAN BEING – this is SCARY! What kind of monster gets a kick out of assigning the tasks and then watching someone die?

In San Antonio, 15-year-old Isaiah Gonzalez completed the game by killing himself. His parents found him hanging in his room, his phone propped up and broadcasting the scene. His is the first confirmed Blue Whale death in the United States. Investigators are also looking into a 16-year-old girl’s suicide in Atlanta.

Don’t assume your children can’t fall victim to this challenge. One journalist in Europe was able to contact a challenge curator. The curator stated once the challenge was started, there was no way out, and stated that if the person tried to get out, “I have all your information, they will come after you” (source: www.higgypop.com/blog/blue-whale-challenge/).

Children and teenagers are subject to impulsivity and emotions. This challenge preys on those traits, as well as becoming a psychological game. The curator grooms the challenger, just like a sexual predator would groom a victim. Things start out small and seem easy. Then they increase just enough to make the person uncomfortable but still seem like “no big deal.” Then they increase again, and again, and again.

Some of the tasks involve getting up at 4:20 am. Allow me to point this out: when you are sleep-deprived, you don’t think as clearly. Sleep also affects your mood and health. You make more impulsive decisions.

In other words, the challenge is DESIGNED to break you down.

Parents, this is your wake-up call! Get your nose out of your phone and pay attention to your children. Don’t be a “friend” to your kids. Be a parent. Be nosy. Be watchful. Be annoyingly in their business. Show them you care. Talk to them. Note changes in their behaviors. Read what they are posting online. Know their friends, and talk with their friends so they are comfortable coming to you if they see any concerning behaviors.

Some people argue that only people who are already suicidal will do the Blue Whale Challenge.

Does that seriously mean we should ignore it? Should we ignore the grooming and psychological games that are being used? Um, no! Those things can work on anyone, but especially on those who have insecurities or doubts or who need attention. I just described most teenagers!

What if it was your kid working towards completing this challenge?

Jessica McCaslin

Jessica is a mom who is working outside the home part-time and who is learning to cope with the ever-changing daily challenges of full-time parenthood. She graduated with her Master's degree in community counseling from the University of Nebraska at Kearney in 2005, and works with a diverse mental health population. Jessica resides in Central Nebraska with her husband and four children on the family ranch.