Must we worry about ‘13 Reasons Why’ and suicide?
Recently, an article warning parents and communities about an online game, “Blue Whale Challenge,” made the rounds of my phone chat groups.
This alternate reality game, said to promote harmful behavior and suicide in Russia and Central Asia, is named after the marien mammal and gives the wrong notion that they intentionally end their lives by “beaching” themselves up on shorelines, where they eventually die from dehydration.
I assumed this was a hoax or another fake news. But a quick search showed that this game is being linked a to over a hundred suicides in Russia. It wasn’t the first of its kind. Before the emergence of the Blue Whale Challenge (BWC), there were other groups in Russia which supposedly promoted self-harm, but its founders have since been apprehended and the sites taken down.
But in the case of BWC, arrests have yet to be made, and the game is far more dangerous than its predecessors. The “game” starts with an interested player expressing his desire to join the game and thus being “chosen” by an administrator.
Once chosen, the player is sent a task every day for 50 days. Tasks have been said to include waking up at odd times of the night, listening to music that encourages harmful behavior, cutting up one’s arm or leg in the image of a whale and ultimately, committing suicide on the last day, to “win.”
This made me wonder: who in his right mind would want to lead the young to their death? Apparently, before a player is accepted into the game, he or she must give identification numbers and details with credit card information.
Later on, the personal information is used to blackmail the player in case he/she gets cold feet and is supposedly told that someone will kill his/her family if he/she does not complete the game. I highly doubt this is possible, as the administrator is probably on the other side of the world, but to a vulnerable adolescent, this scenario is not impossible.
The motive—identity theft and credit card or bank fraud—seemed like enough reason for some evil minds to push a few young people to their deaths.
Another development was the launch of a show on Netflix called “13 Reasons Why.” The show revolves around the 13 reasons why Hannah, a young teenage girl, committed suicide.
I watched bits and pieces of a few episodes to get an idea of whether it is just another harmless teenage angst-filled show, or something to actually worry about.
I can’t help but feel that, while it shows how bullying can have grave, and even fatal, effects, the show also somehow romanticizes suicide and makes it appear as an actual way to attain justice.
Suicide is a permanent end to one’s life. In my opinion, the show gives the impression that suicide is not as “final” as it really is. After all, though Hannah is already dead, she still gets to “live on” each time she tells her story through her tapes.
Even better, her death gives her the kind of attention she did not have in life and allows her to have her revenge on all the people who have wronged her.
Is this the effect a troubled adolescent wants from a suicide? Maybe. But does this actually happen in real life? No.
The show creates awareness of suicide, bullying and rape, but it doesn’t give information on her mental health, which, given the right attention, might have been able to prevent her death. It needs strict parental guidance to lead the conversation to the correct conclusions; otherwise, it will be like the blind leading the blind.
Between suicide-themed internet games and shows, should we be worried about what our children are exposed to? Or is this a case of overreacting? After all, how far can anyone push a person? Can one show or game actually make a person end his or her life?
A closer look into the BWC has not been proven to be the actual cause of teenage suicides in Russia. Statistics still point to domestic and general conflict, with peers as the leading cause of suicide, and most reports only going as far as saying that a number of the teenagers were part of the same “hashtags” and online groups.
People with similar dispositions are likely to join groups that promote and encourage the same ideas, however. According to Dr. Michelle Ybarra of Psychology Today, “multiple visits” to sites which promote specific ideas “aggravate behavior.”
The National Association of School Psychologists in the US released a statement last April in reaction to “13 Reasons Why,” saying, “Research shows that exposure to another person’s suicide or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of death, can be one of the many risk factors that youth struggling with mental health conditions cite as a reason they contemplate or attempt suicide.”
But before we get completely upset over suicide-related media, let’s take a step back. In this day and age, our children will always be exposed to shows, books and other forms of media that perpetuate the myth of suicide as being romantic or heroic. This does not leave online groups or shows any less accountable because anything or anyone who serves as a “tipping point” in the direction of death, rather than a turning point for life, should be held accountable.
But we can’t spend our lives censoring anything potentially dangerous for our children.
Rather than putting all our energy into policing what they are exposed to, we need to focus on the issues that cause suicide in the first place, provide a stable support group to balance whatever they see and hear online, and be on the lookout for signs of trouble.
Even the youth without mental health issues need to be guided on what to do if a friend turns to them for help, or how they can recognize telltale signs.
Teenagers must know that they cannot keep their friends’ pain and harmful behavior a secret, just to honor a deadly promise, or as a testament of their loyalty to their friend. We must teach our children that a true friend will inform a responsible adult of their friend’s plan immediately, lest their silence abet suicide. The surviving teen will be left with an unresolved guilt.
Though these are dangerous times we live in, never has awareness been so high and mental health issues given so much attention. With the right attitude and proper care, hopefully, we will be able to guide our children and help them safely and successfully navigate the media bombardment and challenges they face.
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