Concerns are heightening in U.S. schools after the emergence of an online phenomenon called the "Blue Whale Challenge," which encourages participants to engage in self-harm and even to commit suicide.
According to WKRG, the Blue Whale Challenge first came to attention in India and Russia in 2016. The challenge asks participants to take part in challenges that take place over a 50-day period, reports WTVR. Challenges can start out as innocuous as watching a horror movie but can escalate to dangerous behavior such as hanging off of a building. The final challenge is reportedly to commit suicide.
WKRG also reports that there is an app connected to the challenge that can be downloaded. The app can hack into personal information that administrators can use to threaten the user or the user's family in order to encourage suicide.
On May 11, the BBC reported that one of the challenge's administrators, 21-year-old Philipp Budeikin, had been arrested in Russia. During a court hearing on May 10, he pleaded guilty to inciting at least 16 teenage girls to commit suicide. He reportedly told members of the Russian press that his victims were "biological waste" and that he was "cleansing society." He is currently being held in a St. Petersburg prison.
According to WTVR, as of May 12, there have been no verified reports of the challenge taking place here in the United States. However, that has not stopped school districts from taking precautionary measures.
"What we did is send messages home to ... parents of our middle school students," Abby Doliver, superintendent of the Norwich City School District in Connecticut, told WTVR.
Schools in Baldwin County, Alabama, also took steps to notify parents of the challenge's existence after students from two separate schools notified school staff about the app.
"Anything that could be a potential harm or danger to students we want to put that out so parents can be aware of it as well," school system Safety Supervisor Anthony Sampson told WKRN. "We just pushed that out as a precautionary measure," he continued, "but there is nothing that has been confirmed going on our campuses."
Eddie Pratt, a youth therapist at AltaPointe Health Systems, told WKRG that internet challenges like the Blue Whale Challenge target vulnerable children, and urged parents to monitor their children's social media usage.
"Kids are very enticed into a lot of activities, a lot of social media and I think as much as they have access to it parents and guardians have to be equally as informed about where they are going," he said.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one resource available to those who are contemplating suicide or who know someone who may be contemplating suicide is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is available 24/7. It can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 or via TTY at 1-800-799-4889.