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Internet challenges: Help your kids stay away from the "Blue Whale"

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Fr Joshan Rodrigues - published on 09/18/17

Having a proactive, mediated approach to tech helps to maintain a bulwark against things like the Blue Whale challenge.

The “Blue Whale” controversy has once again brought front-and-center the debate on whether children and adolescents should have unrestricted access to smartphones and the internet; or, rather, how much access is okay.

The Blue Whale game or Blue Whale Challenge is believed to be a suicide game wherein a participant is given a task to complete daily — for a period of 50 days — the final assignment of which is the participant committing suicide. Participants are expected to share photos of the challenges/tasks completed by them. The Blue Whale suicide game goes by many names including “A Silent House,” “A Sea Of Whales” and “Wake Me Up At 4:20 a.m.” It is played primarily via the website VKontakte, which is a popular social network in Russia. It gets its name from a common belief (highly debated) that blue whales voluntarily beach themselves in order to end their own lives.

The daily tasks start off easy; they might involve listening to certain genres of music, waking up at odd hours, watching a horror movie – but they slowly escalate to things like carving out shapes on one’s skin, self-mutilation and, eventually, suicide. A few cases have been reported in India, though there is no confirmation that these are genuinely connected with the “challenge.” Governments at the local level and many schools have now begun awareness programs to warn children about the dangers of such games.

Coming back to my point, the advent of the internet had been heralded as the door to a more informed and educated humanity. After two decades of increased use, though, the argument can be made that the world wide web, and social media, have left us confused, divided, self-involved and disoriented. I accept the benefits it has brought, but suspect they have been balanced by an equal negative impact.

As with any another technology, the secret lies in monitoring and educating about their proper use.

Having a smart phone has become an integral part of an adolescent’s life – it makes it easy to keep in touch with parents, especially when teenagers are very involved with school activities, and it is essential for keeping up with peers and social circles. Being deprived of such access might actually seem cruel or traumatic for some youths. But there need to be some rules and here are two important ones:

Parental access: It is certainly a parental call, so to speak, but I am of the firm view that children do not have a “right” to a cellphone; not even teenagers, unless they can demonstrate solid social and yes, even moral judgment, and that parents should have joint access to their kid’s phones, so they can insure that nothing is amiss, or head a bad decision off at the pass. In that way, parents can keep communication lines open with their children, and openly discuss what might be problematic. Simply taking away their phone could prove counter-productive in some cases – creating barriers, rather than open dialogue.

Digital downtime:  When we were kids, we had fixed times for watching the television. We did not have unrestricted access. Something similar is required for cellphones today. The Blue Whale game, for instance, is usually played in the late hours of the night. Nothing good ever happens under the cover of darkness. Letting your kids sleep with their cellphones should be a strict no-no. Even if they are not involved in any negative behaviour online, your teenagers are bound to stay awake late into the night browsing through various social media. Sleep deprivation leads to other ill-effects and you will see your children being less productive during the day.

It is well-known that Steve Jobs himself limited the amount of time his own kids spent on Apple devices. While the whole world was hooked to the iPod, his own kids hadn’t even used it. As a parent, he was concerned about the long-term effects of kids spending hours on touch-screen technology, in the same way that some doctors might concerned about prescribing certain medicines for their own children.

Having a proactive and mediated approach to technology is an important step to maintaining a bulwark against things like the Blue Whale challenge. There is something new coming up every day in the digital world. Responding to every problem individually may not be possible, but teaching our kids how to use technology properly is.

One final note, in discussing the Blue Whale, a student in Mumbai asked why can’t they make games where you are required to do 50 positive things, instead? Well, that’s very insightful. Sounds like an app along the lines of a Lenten Calendar, where users could be asked to do one act of outreach each day, beginning with small tasks and progressively building up towards bigger actions in their local community. It could be called the White Knight Challenge! If there are any game or app developers out there listening, here’s your next big thing.

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