All posts by Maria Bada

Online suicide games: a form of digital self-harm or a myth?

By Maria Bada & Richard Clayton

October is ‘Cyber Security Month’, and you will see lots of warnings and advice about how to keep yourself safe online. Unfortunately, not every warning is entirely accurate and particularly egregious examples are warnings about ‘suicide games’ which are said to involve an escalating series of challenges ending in suicide.

Here at the Cambridge Cybercrime Centre, we’ve been looking into suicide games by interviewing teachers, child protection experts and NGOs; and by tracking mentions of games such as the ‘Blue Whale Challenge’ and ‘Momo’ in news stories and on UK Police and related websites.

We found that the stories about online suicide games have no discernable basis in fact and are linked to misperceptions about actual suicides. A key finding of our work is that media, social media and well-meaning (but baseless) warning releases by authorities are spreading the challenge culture and exaggerating fears.

To clarify, virally spreading challenges are real and some are unexpectedly dangerous such as the salt and ice challenge, the cinnamon challenge and more recently skin embroidery. Very sadly of course suicides are also real – but we are convinced that the combination has no basis in fact.

We’re not alone in our belief. Snopes investigated Blue Whale in 2017 and deemed the story ‘unproven’, while in 2019 the BBC posted a detailed history of Blue Whale showing there was no record of such a game prior to a single Russian media article of dubious accuracy. The UK Safer Internet Centre calls the claims around Momo ‘fake news’, while YouTube has found no evidence to support the claim that there are videos showing or promoting Momo on its platform.

Regardless of whether a challenge is dangerous or not, youngsters are especially motivated to take part, presumably because of a desire for attention and curiosity. The ‘challenge culture’ is a deeply rooted online phenomenon. Young people are constantly receiving media messages and new norms which not only inform their thinking, but also their values and beliefs. 

Although there is no evidence that the suicide games are ‘real’, authorities around the world have reacted by releasing warnings and creating information campaigns to warn youngsters and parents about the risks. However, a key concern when discussing, or warning of, suicide games is that this drives children towards the very content of concern and raises the risk of ‘suicide contagion’, which could turn stories into a tragic self-fulfilling prophecy for a small number of vulnerable youths.

Understanding what media content really means, what its source is and why a certain message has been constructed, is crucial for quality understanding and recognition of media mediated messages and their meaning. Adequate answers to all these questions can only be acquired by media literacy. However, in most countries media education is still a secondary activity that teachers or media educators deal with without training or proper material. 

Our research recommends that policy measures are taken such as: a) awareness and education to ensure that young people can handle risks online and offline; b) development of national and international strategies and guidelines for suicide prevention and how the news related to suicides is shown in media and social media; c) development of social media and media literacy; d) collaborative efforts of media, legal systems and education to prevent suicides; e) guidance for quality control of warning releases by authorities.

Maria Bada presented this work on 24-26th June 2019, at the 24th Annual CyberPsychology, CyberTherapy & Social Networking Conference (CYPSY24) in Norfolk, Virginia, USA. Click here  to access the abstract of this paper – the full version of the paper is currently in peer review and should be available soon.