Internet generation

In our anxiety about the Blue Whale Challenge, are we missing the elephant in the room?

While discussing the dangers of an unregulated cyberspace, shouldn’t we also be speaking about depression and mental health?

In the beginning, the Blue Whale Challenge seemed like it had all the hallmarks of an urban legend: an online self-harm game that instructed victims to commit increasing degrees of violence upon themselves, finally convincing them to commit suicide. While it was whispered about in schools, college corridors and Reddit forums, reporters found it difficult to trace.

But since then, it appears to be accruing a body count: multiple suicides and suicide attempts in Russia, Kenya, Brazil, China, Spain, Italy, Chile and India have been attributed to people signing up for the challenge. The stories are often accompanied by images of a blue whale carved onto the victim’s skin or a last selfie taken before committing suicide.

The latest incident in India involves the last-minute rescue of a teenager in Jodhpur who attempted suicide twice – first by jumping into Kalina Lake on September 4, and then by overdosing on sleeping pills – within the same week. The teenager had carved the shape of a whale on her arm, and when interviewed, revealed that unless she completed the last task of the challenge, she believed that her mother would die.

Most victims of the Blue Whale Challenge across the world appear to have a few things in common – they are young and vulnerable to abuse online, and their connection with the game is hard to substantiate. While the stories speak to our wariness of technology-dependence, and send our parenting instincts into nervous overdrive, there is very little evidence on ground that the game even exists.

Ever since the challenge was first reported on a Russian news portal, news reports have debunked its existence, raising questions about the media’s responsibility in spreading unsubstantiated rumours and the manner in which the issue is being used to argue against the influence of the internet and promote panic. Much of the coverage regarding the challenge’s possible influence, begs the question: how can teens be raised in a way that makes them safe from the internet?

Photo credit: Public Domain Pictures
Photo credit: Public Domain Pictures

The Blue Whale Challenge in India

Cyber-lawyer Karnika Seth, who authored the book Protection of Children on Internet, admits that it is impossible to generate the kind of surveillance required to nip perceived online threats – both on account of privacy laws and the sheer scale of effort such an exercise would require. She calls the unregulated internet in India a “mammoth problem that cannot be overlooked anymore”.

While there is no specific law to be applied to a situation like the alleged Blue Whale Challenge, Seth pointed to acts relating to the cyber space like the IT Act and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, along with inbuilt provisions within the Indian Penal Code, such as Act 305, that could be applied.

There have been approximately 10 reported cases of suicide in India, which are believed to be related to the Blue Whale Challenge. Google Trends show that Indian interest in the phenomenon has been overwhelming – the most common searched phrases have been “Download Blue Whale Game”, which might suggest that people are keen to inflict self-harm, or just morbidly curious (particularly in Kochi and Calcutta).

Timely intervention appears to have saved at least a few lives, such as the case of an engineering student in Kolkata who claimed that having completed several levels of the game, he was pulled back from the brink of suicide by his teacher, parents and a CID officer who counselled him. He was quoted as saying: “My message to whoever is in this game is stop before it is too late. It is not a game…they give you challenges and they take you to places you cannot come back from. They drive you to suicide.”

But despite this, the police in India have found no direct link between the suicides and the existence of any virtual moderator, who according to the Blue Whale legend, instructs victims to inflict self-harm. A lot of the so-called links have been proved to be hearsay and hysteria as seen in the case of a 12-year-old from Indore, whose mother clarified that while he had admitted to “playing games”, he had never heard of Blue Whale.

A disturbing trend

Pranesh Prakash, Policy Director at the Centre for Internet and Society, concluded: “All the available evidence points to this being a hoax, including those situations where teenagers have actually engaged in self-harm by carving a whale on their arm and have blamed the ‘Blue Whale app’ and a stranger threatening them. The children have subsequently been found to be lying through hard evidence, for instance the mobile operator finds no records of any messages or calls at those timings to the child’s number.”

While the first suicide linked to the alleged challenge emerged in Russia in 2015, Prakash added: “[E]ven the Russian police haven’t revealed any evidence in their possession in the arrests they have made related to the Blue Whale Challenge, nor have those cases gone to trial. How else can one explain the fact that there hasn’t been evidence of a ‘tutor’ in even a single one of the cases reported in India?”

There is, however, a huge problem regardless of whether the game exists: “The harm caused by the media sensationalism is quite real thanks to what is known as the Werther effect, leading to copycat suicides,” Prakash said.

Authorities in most countries where victims have appeared have treated these claims seriously. In May, the Russian Duma or parliament made it an act of criminal responsibility to create a pro-suicide group on social media. Authorities in China and other countries are monitoring mentions of the game on forums and live broadcasts. The Delhi Police have issued an advisory after a cyber cell spotted related hashtags and messages on social networking sites. In India, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology directed several internet companies such as Google, Facebook, Instagram, WhatApp, Microsoft and Yahoo to remove all links which direct users to the Blue Whale Challenge.

The real problem

Teenage suicide is a growing concern worldwide and India has one of the world’s highest suicide rates for youth aged between 15 and 29. In the US, suicide is documented as the second leading cause of death for young people. The Netflix original series 13 Reasons Why was banned in several countries over accusations that it glamourised teen depressives and suicides.

The real conversation we need to be having with the youth is about their reasons for choosing self-harm – about mental health and depression. Dr Depeak Raheja, a senior psychiatrist and vice-president of the Delhi Psychiatric Society, suggested that parents who suspect their child might have suicidal urges should address not just the issue of the game, “but also the underlying causative factors – isolation, low self-worth, hopelessness and underlying or active depression”.

Photo credit: Victor/Flickr
Photo credit: Victor/Flickr

One way in which this is already happening is through online mental health support groups which are promoted as alternatives to the Blue Whale Challenge. In Brazil, a designer has created a viral counter movement called the Pink Whale (Baleia Rosa), which relies on the collaboration of hundreds of volunteers and is based on positive tasks that combat depression. The British YouTuber HiggyPop has also set up an email service that sends daily Pink Whale challenges to participants. In the United States, a site called Blue Whale Challenge uses fifty days of tasks to promote mental health and well-being, while the Green Whale Challenge is a humorous version of the game in Argentina.

The fear and anxiety around the Blue Whale Challenge shows our willingness to project our fears of an unregulated internet onto anything that fits the profile, even as we override all evidence to the contrary. Instead, parents in particular must treat the tragic aftermath of popular suicide games as an opportunity to have a necessary, if belated, conversation about depression and mental health. The Blue Whale challenge may well turn out to be a hoax, but the challenge of keeping teenagers safe and healthy is a very real one.

Karishma Attari is the author of I See You and Don’t Look Down. She runs a workshop series called Shakespeare for Dummies and is currently writing a novel titled The Want Diaries. Her Twitter handle is @KarishmaWrites.

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Behind the garb of wealth and success, white collar criminals are hiding in plain sight

Understanding the forces that motivate leaders to become fraudsters.

Most con artists are very easy to like; the ones that belong to the corporate society, even more so. The Jordan Belforts of the world are confident, sharp and can smooth-talk their way into convincing people to bend at their will. For years, Harshad Mehta, a practiced con-artist, employed all-of-the-above to earn the sobriquet “big bull” on Dalaal Street. In 1992, the stockbroker used the pump and dump technique, explained later, to falsely inflate the Sensex from 1,194 points to 4,467. It was only after the scam that journalist Sucheta Dalal, acting on a tip-off, broke the story exposing how he fraudulently dipped into the banking system to finance a boom that manipulated the stock market.


In her book ‘The confidence game’, Maria Konnikova observes that con artists are expert storytellers - “When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.” Harshad Mehta’s story was an endearing rags-to-riches tale in which an insurance agent turned stockbroker flourished based on his skill and knowledge of the market. For years, he gave hope to marketmen that they too could one day live in a 15,000 sq.ft. posh apartment with a swimming pool in upmarket Worli.

One such marketman was Ketan Parekh who took over Dalaal Street after the arrest of Harshad Mehta. Ketan Parekh kept a low profile and broke character only to celebrate milestones such as reaching Rs. 100 crore in net worth, for which he threw a lavish bash with a star-studded guest-list to show off his wealth and connections. Ketan Parekh, a trainee in Harshad Mehta’s company, used the same infamous pump-and-dump scheme to make his riches. In that, he first used false bank documents to buy high stakes in shares that would inflate the stock prices of certain companies. The rise in stock prices lured in other institutional investors, further increasing the price of the stock. Once the price was high, Ketan dumped these stocks making huge profits and causing the stock market to take a tumble since it was propped up on misleading share prices. Ketan Parekh was later implicated in the 2001 securities scam and is serving a 14-years SEBI ban. The tactics employed by Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh were similar, in that they found a loophole in the system and took advantage of it to accumulate an obscene amount of wealth.


Call it greed, addiction or smarts, the 1992 and 2001 Securities Scams, for the first time, revealed the magnitude of white collar crimes in India. To fill the gaps exposed through these scams, the Securities Laws Act 1995 widened SEBI’s jurisdiction and allowed it to regulate depositories, FIIs, venture capital funds and credit-rating agencies. SEBI further received greater autonomy to penalise capital market violations with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs.

Despite an empowered regulatory body, the next white-collar crime struck India’s capital market with a massive blow. In a confession letter, Ramalinga Raju, ex-chairman of Satyam Computers convicted of criminal conspiracy and financial fraud, disclosed that Satyam’s balance sheets were cooked up to show an excess of revenues amounting to Rs. 7,000 crore. This accounting fraud allowed the chairman to keep the share prices of the company high. The deception, once revealed to unsuspecting board members and shareholders, made the company’s stock prices crash, with the investors losing as much as Rs. 14,000 crores. The crash of India’s fourth largest software services company is often likened to the bankruptcy of Enron - both companies achieved dizzying heights but collapsed to the ground taking their shareholders with them. Ramalinga Raju wrote in his letter “it was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”, implying that even after the realisation of consequences of the crime, it was impossible for him to rectify it.

It is theorised that white-collar crimes like these are highly rationalised. The motivation for the crime can be linked to the strain theory developed by Robert K Merton who stated that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (the importance of money, social status etc.). Not having the means to achieve those goals leads individuals to commit crimes.

Take the case of the executive who spent nine years in McKinsey as managing director and thereafter on the corporate and non-profit boards of Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Harvard Business School. Rajat Gupta was a figure of success. Furthermore, his commitment to philanthropy added an additional layer of credibility to his image. He created the American India Foundation which brought in millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions from NRIs to development programs across the country. Rajat Gupta’s descent started during the investigation on Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri-Lankan hedge fund manager accused of insider trading. Convicted for leaking confidential information about Warren Buffet’s sizeable investment plans for Goldman Sachs to Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta was found guilty of conspiracy and three counts of securities fraud. Safe to say, Mr. Gupta’s philanthropic work did not sway the jury.


The people discussed above have one thing in common - each one of them was well respected and celebrated for their industry prowess and social standing, but got sucked down a path of non-violent crime. The question remains - Why are individuals at successful positions willing to risk it all? The book Why They Do It: Inside the mind of the White-Collar Criminal based on a research by Eugene Soltes reveals a startling insight. Soltes spoke to fifty white collar criminals to understand their motivations behind the crimes. Like most of us, Soltes expected the workings of a calculated and greedy mind behind the crimes, something that could separate them from regular people. However, the results were surprisingly unnerving. According to the research, most of the executives who committed crimes made decisions the way we all do–on the basis of their intuitions and gut feelings. They often didn’t realise the consequences of their action and got caught in the flow of making more money.


The arena of white collar crimes is full of commanding players with large and complex personalities. Billions, starring Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti, captures the undercurrents of Wall Street and delivers a high-octane ‘ruthless attorney vs wealthy kingpin’ drama. The show looks at the fine line between success and fraud in the stock market. Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund kingpin, skilfully walks on this fine line like a tightrope walker, making it difficult for Chuck Rhoades, a US attorney, to build a case against him.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.