MANISHA SHASTRI | 13 AUGUST, 2017
The recent suicide of a 14 year old boy in Mumbai as a result of the blue whale challenges has brought immense attention to the affects of social media on youth mental health. While social media does play a fairly influential role, the entire pinning of the issue on social media is highly problematic.
For those unaware, the Blue Whale Challenge was created by an individual in Russia (now in judicial custody) in 2013 and has thus far claimed the lives over 130 children across the world. The challenge lasts fifty days in the course of which the participant is given several tasks to do which include indulging in self harm, watching horror movies and waking up at odd hours. The participants are also asked to share videos to provide proof of having completed the tasks. The last task in the challenge requires the participant to commit suicide.
It is not the first time that such a game has emerged and been created online, even in the past several children have fallen victim to such games. However, it is a first for India.
Following the death of the 14 year old boy in Mumbai, there has been plenty of debate and discussion on new channels, social media, among concerned parents and politicians. Discussions were held in the Rajya Sabha and the Maharashtra assembly, with lawmakers demanding that such games be removed and banned for websites.
While it is important to remove these games from the public domain and out of the reach of children, what is more important is to understand why such a game is capturing their imagination and attention; and the reasons for children deciding to engage is something like this.
The issue here is not just that of social media being an instigator, but is largely of the silence around mental health issues and the lack of attention given to them.
Globally, 20 percent of the youth are in need of mental health care, but 80 percent of these will not get access to any due to a reasons ranging from the lack of accessibility to social stigma and stereotyping.
Teenagers and young adults in their formative years seek social validation, acceptance and aspire to be a part of something bigger than them. The creators of games such as the Blue Whale Challenge prey on and exploit these insecurities and vulnerabilities, grooming them to engage in various forms of self harm and abuse.
In such a scenario, rather than merely seeking to ban such games and regulating social media what is required are structures that can be accessed by children and young adults, where they can freely engage with their challenges and vulnerabilities, finding more healthy and constructive ways to cope with and address them.
Social media can be regulated to a certain extent, but only regulation will not serve any purpose in the long run to address mental health challenges faced by children and adults across the world. In the present context of the Blue Whale Challenge, several articles have been written guiding parents to identify signs of emotional or mental health distress. As an immediate response to the situation, these are required; however, the long term response to such incidents and situation continues to remain absent.
Mental health, like physical health needs to be spoken of and nurtured. It must be recognised that the two are important and inseparable aspects of life, which have a huge impact on the quality of life lived and experienced by an individual.
It is not as if children are incapable of making informed choices, they are, what they need is access to the right kind of information and conversations. The responsibility of parents includes checking their children’s browser history, and watching out for symptoms, but that is not all. Parents and teachers both need to actively engage in conversation with children regarding mental health and the challenges experiences by them while growing up. The silence surrounding the issue is only contributing to the stigma and stereotypes around the issue.
It is appreciated that such matters are being discussed in the Rajya Sabha and state legislative assemblies, but just discussions and demands for regulation and a ban will not suffice.
What is the growing need of the hour is to recognize and address the root causes of mental health distress and to understand what is luring young adults and teenagers into engaging in such dangerous and risk taking behaviour.
It is known that the global mental health burden is expected to increase over the years and that the present mechanisms and structures to address mental health are insufficient and in some cases even absent.
Just blaming social media for such unfortunate instances is nothing but a reaction, but what the situation really demands in nuanced and well – thought of response.