Philipp Budeikin said he created the Blue Whale Challenge meme because he wanted to cleanse society. He argued that the teenage girls who died by suicide as a result of it were “biodegradable waste,” and not human beings. Still, on Wednesday, just months after Budeikin confessed to convincing 15 teenage girls in Russia to take their own lives, a Siberian court found him guilty of inciting the suicides of just two of those girls — each under 18 years of age.
Budeikin’s Blue Whale Challenge, which Radio Free Europe called a “shadowy online phenomenon,” is a game that assigns its participants 50 bizarre, violent and, eventually, lethal tasks. It is named after blue whales’ tendency to beach themselves on purpose before death.
One task asks you to tweet that you are a blue whale using a hashtag. Another asks you to cut your arm three times. The last asks you to take your own life. Players must complete the tasks over the course of 50 days. Some reports say participants have to give a Blue Whale Challenge administrator updates on their progress, and if you don’t, the administrator threatens them.
In June, Russian investigators said Ilya Sodorov, a 26-year-old postman from Moscow, confessed to being one of— if not the only— administrator to whom the game’s participants had to give progress reports.
Mic has chosen not to link to the 50 challenges. Others, however, appear to have tailored their coverage of the Blue Whale Challenge to catch internet searches for anyone who wants to know the rules of the game.
Depending on whom you ask, Budeikin’s meme is either an international cause for alarm or the latest case of mass panic over a digital boogeyman. Most of the fear sparked by it seems to stem from one widely cited report published by Russian outlet Novaya Gazeta, which claimed the Blue Whale Challenge was responsible for the suicides of 130 Russian children over the course of six months. However, neither Russian investigators nor any other media outlet have yet to corroborate those findings.
A search of the hashtags associated with the Blue Whale Challenge reveals that many accounts appear to be playing — or at least claim to be playing — the game, tweeting the requisite hashtag along with a progress report. However, upon closer inspection, many of those accounts appear to be bots.
Though the scope and scale of the Blue Whale Challenge have yet to be confirmed, in the United States, parents of at least two children who died by suicide think Budeikin’s game may have spurred their kids to take their own lives — and other parents and school officials aren’t taking any chances.
In Texas, the family of teenager Isaiah Gonzalez told local media that they believe their son was participating in the game when he livestreamed his own suicide, using a shoe to prop up his phone in order to capture the footage.
According to his family, some of his friends saw— but didn’t take seriously— Gonzalez’ posts to social media that appeared to show he was participating in the game.
“They blew it off like it was a joke, and if one of them would have said something, one of them would have called us, he would have been alive,” the teen’s sister said.
“I want parents to go through their phones, look at their social media,” Gonzalez’ father told local a local ABC affiliate. “If they’re on that challenge already, they can [stop] that from happening.”
Major social media outlets appear to be taking the blue whale challenge seriously. If you search #BlueWhaleChallenge on Instagram’s mobile app, a window pops up on your phone encouraging you to seek support if you’re thinking about harming yourself.
“Posts with words or tags you’re searching for often encourage behavior that can cause harm and even lead to death,” the alert on Instagram says. “If you’re going through something difficult, we’d like to help.”
But in the case of 16-year-old “Nadia” — a pseudonym CNN gave to a another American teen whose family believes she died by suicide as a result of the Blue Whale Challenge — many of the warnings signs that she was participating in the game weren’t posted to social media.
After Nadia’s death, her family found the phrase “I am a blue whale” hidden in plain sight among some of Nadia’s paintings, collages and journal entries.
“She wrote some of this stuff right in front of her teachers. Right around her friends,” Nadia’s older brother told CNN. “This is a thing that is happening, so people should know, especially parents that have kids that could potentially be subjected to the same thing and also to ask for help.”
In May, public schools in Baldwin, Alabama, warned parents that their children may be participating in the dangerous Russian game. Later that month, police officers in Miami released a video on Facebook alerting parents of the game’s warning signs.
But despite the concern from parents, school administrators and law enforcement, some experts are unconvinced about the lethality of the game. In its report on the Blue Whale Challenge, the UK Safer Internet Centre dismissed the so-called lethal meme as “fake news.”
“It is through research and consultation with other colleagues it has come to our attention that the ‘Blue Whale’ is an example of a sensationalized fake news story,” UKSIC said.
UKSIC cited Penny Paterson of the London Grid for Learning who called the Blue Whale Challenge a “hoax.”
“If it took a news story to make us take a child self-harming, such as the ‘Blue Whale’ hoax, as a serious concern then we have to question our own commitment to and understanding of safeguarding,” Paterson said.
Instead of simply focusing on the particulars of the Blue Whale Challenge — like social media posts about being a blue whale — Paterson advised parents to look out for any and all warning signs that their child might be in pain.
Though these experts cautioned against accepting the veracity of the Blue Whale Challenge, others saw the value in acknowledging the game’s existence — and counter-programming it.
Though they didn’t identify as an expert in child safety or mental health, one Reddit user proposed a set of 50 challenges that may be self-affirming for those seeking to participate in the Blue Whale Challenge. They include encouraging people to write the phrase “I’m strong, I can do anything I want” fifty times on a white piece of paper and, perhaps most crucially, reaching out to other people who are participating in the Blue Whale Challenge with them to talk about their pain in an effort to get them to stop playing the game.
One person on Instagram who claimed to be participating in the Blue Whale Challenge said she stopped because of the outpouring of support she received from her followers who reached out to her because she posted the hashtags.
“These days a lot of people contact me, afraid I’m playing blue whale game,” the user posted over alongside a photo of her petting a rabbit. “Yes, blue whale challenge is real... I did talked to curator and almost do what can’t return. But today, I have long conversation with my dad. I will stop all about this game.”
“Thank you for everyone trying to help me,” she said. “I can’t reply to all of it (too many of it). I will try to face the problem, thanks for all your love.”
Editor’s note: For information about suicide prevention or to speak with someone confidentially, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. Both provide free, anonymous support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.