Blue Whale Challenge claims lives of more teens in Maghreb

In Tunisia more than ten cases of suicide among children and teenagers have been reported.
Sunday 04/03/2018
A challenge to parents. A little boy plays a game on his phone. (Reuters)
A challenge to parents. A little boy plays a game on his phone. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Tunisian authorities are raising the alarm about an online self-harm game that continues to claim victims in the Maghreb.

Known as the Blue Whale Challenge, the game consists of a series of tasks that players must complete during a 50-day period, with the final challenge being the player’s suicide. The game has been linked to more than 100 suicides around the world since 2016.

In Algeria, at least four teens have killed themselves while playing the game and experts warn the effect could be far-reaching.

“The mind of a teenager can become totally under the control of his online tutor,” said Algerian clinical psychologist Hamid Mabrouk. “He follows orders until the ultimate challenge: his suicide.”

In December, two schoolboys, 15 and 16, from the small town of Sidi Aiche, Algeria, committed suicide while following the game’s instructions, health and security officials said. In February, a 14-year-old girl was found dead by her younger brother.

Hospitals reportedly treated others who injured themselves playing the game, including a 9-year old boy who drank petrol.

“Unfortunately, another boy aged 8 died before he was brought to the hospital,” said Dr Taoufik el-Hadi, director of the main hospital in Setif, Algeria. “He hanged himself using his mother’s scarf.”

In Tunisia, a 12-year-old boy from Zaghouan committed suicide on February 11. Since then, more than ten cases of suicide among children and teenagers were reported, the latest February 26.

While many suicide reports have not been conclusively linked to the Blue Whale Challenge, parents have called on authorities to ban the game, which psychologists say manipulates vulnerable children and teens.

“These games target children and early teens as (those in) these age categories are emotionally and psychologically fragile, making them easy prey,” said psychologist Salma Ben Abdallah. “These games clearly target children with certain psychological tenuousness, teens who are vulnerable and especially those who have troubles or who have depressive tendencies.”

When the game started to make headlines in Algeria, Tunisian authorities asked parents to be more vigilant in monitoring their children’s online activity, warning that some games could “destroy the psyche of children.”

Such was the case with Maissa, a Tunisian girl who was a casualty of the game. Her father, Hatem Samoud, told Tunisian media his daughter went along with the challenge for fear that her parents would be hurt.

“I wanted my children to learn about the world around and use technology but I didn’t know the game was in the phone,” said Samoud, referring to the Blue Whale Challenge. “I didn’t think this game would make her kill herself. She was a bright child.”

“My son later told me she was scared that they would kill me and her mother if she didn’t do the tasks they asked. I call on every parent to protect their children from all this and for the government to restrict these dangers so I can protect my other children. I won’t allow my children to use the internet or any phone,” he added.

In Kairouan, in central Tunisia, two girls were admitted to hospital after attempting suicide. One of the girls’ mother told Tunisian media that her daughter tried to kill herself after completing 25 of the game’s 50 steps.

Sabri Bhibah, delegate for the protection of children in Kairouan, said an awareness campaign on the dangers of internet use was under way in schools across the country.

“As an immediate response, regional committees of psychologists, doctors, and educators were formed to assess and deal with the issue,” Bhibah said. “The ministry has also launched an awareness campaign, sending text messages to parents to (raise awareness on) the danger of online games and the importance of supervising their children.”

Bhibah added: “We are trying to provide support for the children and trying to get them to speak about this app and not to be afraid of it. We will be visiting the schools and all educational institutions with the guidance of specialists who can advise on the right discourse to address the issue with children and teenagers.”

While there are growing calls to ban the online challenge, Ben Abdallah said that was not necessarily the solution, as adolescents can be even more drawn to activities that are taboo or restricted.

Instead, she called for a national project in schools that involves parents, teachers and psychologists.

“This actually sheds light on the role of the parents and the issues of our educational system as well,” Ben Abdallah said. “The educational system is supposed to provide guidance, education and support but of course all these have been undermined lately.

“There should be a project on the national level to help fight the dangers of the cyber-world. Pre-teens and teenagers, who often show psychological fragility, are easily manipulated. In our time, they have a predisposition. There is a fertile ground for manipulation and it doesn’t have to be the Blue Whale game. It could be anything and they would still be driven to commit suicide. We must address the reasons behind the existence of such a predisposition.”