Authorities in Kazakhstan have responded to the moral panic about the widely reported online suicide games by proposing fresh restrictions on access to social media websites.
The scare originally had its roots in Russia, where media outlets — primarily the liberal-leaning Novaya Gazeta — last year whipped up a hysteria over claims that shadowy individuals on the internet were egging on youngsters into taking their own lives. Novaya Gazeta came in for strong criticism for creating a hype on the basis of scant evidence of a real major threat.
Out of the blue, however, at the end of January, several Russian-language outlets in Central Asia almost simultaneously took up the mantle of reviving the scare.
In Kazakhstan, the charge was led by privately owned television channel KTK, which ran a lurid and skimpily sourced report claiming the grisly fad had spread from Russia.
The hype was given a fresh kickstart this week following reports that a 19-year old girl in the city of Karaganda had committed suicide. Media reports claimed to cite her parents as saying they found strange hashtags in messages on their daughter’s phone that indicated she may have been lured into one of the much talked-about suicide games.
Suggestions of a link between online games and this suicide were swiftly scotched by police, however. Interior Ministry representative Almas Sadubayev said on February 7 that investigations into the death were still ongoing, but that “information about the suicide being committed under the influence of social media websites is incorrect.”
Sadubayev said there had been no confirmed cases of any teenage suicide as a result of online games.
“We call on citizens to keep calm and to refrain from panic,” the police representative said.
Information Minister Dauren Abayev wrote on his Facebook account that the very mention of would-be suicide groups in the media could aggravate the problem.
“We must not forget about the so-called ‘Werther Effect,’ whereby the topicality and sensationalism of a news item leads to an increase in suicides,” he said.
Abayev said that the authorities have long been keeping tabs on suspect websites and taken active measures to shut them down in the hundreds.
Another official from the same ministry, Azamat Kabdeshov, said at a press conference in Astana that in 2015, 157 online communities suspected of propagating pro-suicide themes were shut down. In 2016, the number was 161.
For all the calls for calm, some politicians are seizing on the clamor to push for placing limits on social media.
The Education Ministry summoned a meeting of government officials to discuss the issue of teenage suicide and to come up with some ideas to contain the phenomenon.
An Education Ministry official responsible for the protection of minors, Baliya Akimbekova, said she intended to address a plea to the communications authority to ask for a block on websites promoting suicide, which is in fact already happening.
Akimbekova also appealed to the media to properly address the issue of suicide and called on parents to stop giving their children smartphones.