Fifteen-year-old Isaiah Gonzalez was a soon-to-be sophomore who just joined the ROTC program at his high school. But on Saturday, Gonzalez’s father, Jorge, stepped into his son’s bedroom in their San Antonio home. Isaiah was dead, hanging from the closet, an apparent suicide. Next to his body was a cellphone propped up on a shoe, broadcasting the suicide, according to KSAT.
If the teenager’s sudden suicide wasn’t tragic enough, the Gonzalez family quickly learned Isaiah’s end was possibly tied to a macabre online spectacle known as the Blue Whale Challenge.
Essentially a dangerous personal obstacle course of 50 daily tasks that include everything from watching horror films to self-mutilation, the game is rumored to be behind unexpected deaths across the globe. But because the challenge plays out on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, the reality is hard to prove. In fact, due to the extreme premise alone, some says it’s just an Internet hoax invented to frighten parents and other adults.
Isaiah Gonzalez’s family says their son was definitely involved in Blue Whale and was sending friends pictures of the completed tasks. “It talks about satanic stuff and stuff like that and my son was never into that,” Jorge told WOAI. “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,” his sister Scarlett Cantu-Gonzales said.
Isaiah’s story is not unique. CNN reported on Monday that a 16-year-old unidentified girl in Atlanta is believed to have recently taken her life while participating in the challenge. If true, the two cases appear to be the first deaths in United States linked to the Internet fad.
If alarm is its goal, it’s succeeding. Whether urban legend or reality, there is no doubt that parents, law enforcement, and school authorities are concerned about what appears to be one of the Web’s darker phenomena. Over the past few weeks, several school districts across the country have issued warnings to parents about the potential risks of the Blue Whale Challenge.
The Baldwin County Public School System in Alabama told parents that those behind the game “threaten the teenagers with harm to their families or releasing of personal information until they kill themselves.”
The Miami Police Department released a video warning parents about the challenge and encouraging them to be vigilant about their child’s online activities. Participants are expected to post photos or videos of themselves performing the challenges.
But any warnings from authorities and law enforcement are handicapped by a lack of concrete information about the game.
Because the trend is coming out of the Internet’s far nether regions, even the challenge’s name itself is up for debate. Numerous reports tie the “blue whale” to the opening lines of Russian rock band Lumen’s song “Burn.” According to Bloomberg, the lyrics reference a “huge blue whale” struggling to “break through the net.” Another explanation is the apocryphal story of blue whales purposely beaching on land.
People who are interested throw out postings on social media — Twitter and Instagram, for example — asking for a “curator.” A number of different hashtags— #bluewhalechallenge, #curatorfindme, #i_am_whale — act like homing signals for the anonymous curators.
The curator then assigns the user 50 daily tasks — in a kind of gruesome sensei-student relationship. The specifics vary in different accounts, but the regimen is increasingly spooky and often involves self-mutilation. Some tasks reportedly include waking up at a certain hour to watch a scary movie or listen to music provided by the curator. Others include self-cutting. The final day’s task is suicide.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24, according to the American Psychological Association. While media portrayals of teen suicides often link them with some specific event or provocation, the APA notes that a combination of circumstances and risk factors are generally associated with suicides, among them mental disorders and substance abuse that make teens less able to cope with the stresses of adolescence.
That said, the game has reportedly popped up all around the globe, from Eastern Europe to Brazil, where it’s known as Baleia Azul. There, Bloomberg reported in April, the fad was strong enough that the mayor of Curitiba posted a widely shared video urging teenagers to stay away.
Most of the social media bread crumbs appear to track back to Russian social media. Earlier this month, SkyNews reported “groups in Russia believe that at least 130 young people have taken their lives while playing Blue Whale.” The network spoke to a college student who claimed he was “curious and bored.”
“I didn’t believe it, I guess,” he told the UK network. “I decided to look for it.” The student said his taskmaster ran him through a series of gruesome assignments, including self-mutilation, until the young man’s parents stopped him from completing the final task: throwing himself off a 20-story building in Moscow.
“They start psychologically manipulating you,” the student said. “It is very professionally done. You become a bit of a zombie.”
Other looks at the game have been less conclusive. A Radio Free Europe report from February acknowledged the game exists online, but no definite links to actual deaths could be determined. The report’s author “chatted online with more than a dozen Blue Whale participants, none of whom had advanced very far in the game.”
But there have been at least two arrests in Russia tied to Blue Whale. According to a BBC report in May authorities accused 21-year-old Philipp Budeikin of urging “at least 16 teenage girls to kill themselves” with the game. Last June, 26-year-old Ilya Sidorov was taken into custody after allegedly urging up to 30 girls to suicide, according to the Independent.
Isaiah’s family is now planning his funeral set for Thursday.
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