The recent suicide of a teenager in Kyrgyzstan has ignited a moral panic about the dangers of the Internet, and has prompted lawmakers to consider restricting the online activity of youngsters.
Within hours of news emerging that a young boy in the capital, Bishkek, had taken his life on February 1, media outlets began speculating about the pernicious effects of the Internet, and how interactive online games may have played a role in the tragedy.
Since then, police officers have been subjecting children to unauthorized physical inspections to ensure they are not self-harming. Officers are also checking children’s smartphones for potentially incriminating evidence.
The current wave of panic about online games actually preceded the Bishkek suicide by a couple of days. Within a two-day period, on January 30-31, multiple local outlets published detailed reports of the emergence of virtual games propagated by the use of Russian language hashtags, translatable as “#SeaOfWhales,” “#BlueWhales,” “#WhalesSwimUpwards” and “#WakeMeUpAt420.”
Media accounts described the game along these lines: anonymous administrators give participants, or “whales,” a series of bizarre real-life tasks, such as drawing a blue whale on one’s wrist and then photographing the result as evidence. Subsequent tasks would escalate in elaborateness. The games are said to be played through closed groups such as Russia-based social networking website VKontakte, or image-sharing site Instagram.
The #WakeMeUpAt420 (“#Разбудименяв420") hashtag alluded to in media reports developed an eerie relevance after the February 1 suicide, when police revealed that the victim had taken his life by leaping from the fifth floor of a Soviet-era apartment block at 4 am. No firm link has yet been established between the suicide and the purported online games.
In a strange turn of events, the first casualty to follow that death was a much-loved piece of street art depicting a Beluga whale. A group of police officers turned up to inspect the mural, which covered a 100 square-meter space on the side of a travel agency, but took no immediate action. After darkness fell, however, a group of men with buckets of paint arrived to whitewash it.
The director of the travel agency later claimed to have ordered the whitewash of his own volition, although another employee told EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity that the police had made the suggestion.
Dmitry Motinov, a photographer and content manager of the Living Asia multimedia website, expressed dismay at the whitewashing of the whale, saying it offered a stark example of how the public’s attention can be easily manipulated. “People’s attentions quickly shifted from the [suicide] groups themselves to the painting. It is frightening how easily [on social media] these shifts happen,” Motinov told EurasiaNet.org.
On February 2, an MP affiliated with the Respublika-Ata-Jurt party, Maksat Sabirov, issued a call for lawmakers to somehow block access to websites propagating the games that have been linked to suicide. Other MPs have called for a ban on smartphones in school.
Police in Bishkek wasted no time in taking action. Law enforcement officers, accompanied by city and educational workers, raided Internet cafes on the evening of February 1 to check if there were any children present. Bishkek-based website KNews cited a police precinct in Bishkek as saying five underage children had been caught in a public park purportedly in the act of carrying out the tasks of an online game administrator. Even more sensationally, police claim to have intercepted a child in a state of intoxication in the act of trying to commit suicide, according to the KNews report.
Some observers are voicing concern that the current clamor around teenage suicide can have consequences for online freedom of expression. Burul Makenbaeva, director of the Bishkek-based Mental Health and Society nongovernmental organization, said the hype surrounding suspected suicide groups could provide authorities with an excuse to “clamp down on social networks.”
Several recent developments already point to a worsening climate for online activity in Kyrgyzstan. Most ominously, in January, a letter written by the deputy head of the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, noted that some 45 Facebook users openly critical of President Almazbek Atambayev had been placed under the organ’s direct observation. The intended recipient of the message, MP Irina Karamushkina, confirmed that the letter was authentic.
Regardless of the Internet’s role in the February 1 death, suicide is indeed a serious and seemingly deep-rooted problem in Kyrgyzstan.
Sabirov, the MP, told lawmakers that 1,571 suicides had been reported in Kyrgyzstan in 2016, although he gave no specific figures for children. In the absence of an in-depth study, the impact of online games in cases of depression and self-harm involving children remains uncertain.
The nature of the link has been intensely debated in the Russian media, which is readily consumed in Kyrgyzstan. Popular news outlet Gazeta.ru was roundly criticized for a sensational May 2016 report about the online groups. The report claimed, among other things, that the vast majority of over 130 child suicides in Russia between November 2015 and April 2016 were directly related to the game.
At first glance, some online groups running the games appear to have benign intentions and function as virtual hangouts. Some Kyrgyz Instagram users are plainly posting whale-themed memes on their accounts in jest.
The anxiety is real, however, and there is no shortage of troubling material online for children to view.
One mother living in Bishkek told EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity that she had seen a message sent to her daughter from an unidentifiable user on VKontakte that contained links to videos explaining how a person can slit their wrists. “My daughter told me that she knew of the game but had never met anyone who had played it,” the mother told EurasiaNet.org. “She lied to me.”
While officials chase after purported Internet dangers, genuine problems that affect children, like depression, are failing to be addressed, said Makenbaeva, the mental health advocate. “We simply do not have enough qualified specialists to give help to children that need it, and that is worrying,” Makenbaeva said.