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Viral violence

44-Mary-Aiken Mary Aiken

The Blue Whale Challenge is just one extreme example of the internet’s dark side

  • “A study of excessive gamers showed that their cravings had a similar neurobiological pattern as the cravings for drugs in drug addicts.” - Mary Aiken, cyberpsychologist

On July 8, Isaiah Gonzalez, 15, became the first alleged victim of the Blue Whale Challenge in the US. His father found him hanging in his bedroom in San Antonio, Texas. Jorge Gonzalez, a veteran, said he found evidence that his son’s suicide was linked to the challenge. According to reports, Isaiah live-streamed his death, an element of the challenge. His parents discovered his phone propped up, filming his hanging body.

“[His phone] talks about satanic stuff, but my son was never into that,” Gonzalez told a news website. “We had no signs at all.... It could happen to any family. We’re just urging parents: look at your kid’s social media.”

Earlier in July, the challenge had allegedly incited a 16-year-old girl in Atlanta, Georgia, to commit suicide.

After the deaths, police and school authorities have been issuing warnings of all kinds—from posting YouTube videos to mailing letters—asking parents to keep an eye on their children’s online activities.

Some online-related violent behaviour stems from deliberate attempts by conscious actors to make certain kinds of information go viral. But, seemingly innocent online activity can also affect individuals negatively.

“In 2012, an 18-year-old boy in Taiwan, a gamer who went by the name “Chuang”, booked a private room at an internet café and holed up there without eating or sleeping for 40 hours to play a marathon session of Diablo III. He died of what is suspected to be a fatal blood clot,” said Dr Mary Aiken, one of the world’s leading cyberpsychologists based in Ireland. The same year, when another young man in Taiwan was found dead after playing a game called League of Legends for a day straight in a PC bang (a type of gaming centre). “His body was reportedly found with his hands stretched out for the keyboard and mouse,” Aiken told THE WEEK.

Aiken, author of The Cyber Effect, has catalogued numerous examples where addiction to online gaming has led to gross negligence of routine responsibilities. “There are more than 12,000 internet cafés (and counting) in South Korea, where professional gaming is now a multimillion-dollar industry,” said Aiken. “The cafés appear to be the epicentre of dark tales and addiction.”

One dark tale involved an unemployed married couple hooked on a role-playing game called Prius Online. So addicted were they to their virtual life where they cared for a virtual child named Anima, that they failed to care for their actual baby. Born prematurely with various health complications, the real baby died of malnutrition at just three months old. The parents were reportedly at an internet café at the time.

In 2010, a Korean man was arrested for murdering his mother who nagged him about his addiction to gaming. Aiken also cited the story of a man who died of a heart attack after playing StarCraft nonstop for 50 hours.

Online addiction can lead to self-destructive behaviour. “In the case of Blue Whale, the attraction lies in the response to challenges,” Brad J. Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University, told THE WEEK. “People will play games for hours on end trying to meet set challenges.” He suggested that many of us were prone to dares. “There is a ‘forbidden fruit’ element to this type of human behaviour,” he said. “If you tell someone not to do something, they only want to do it more.”

Addiction to online gaming could be rooted in one’s neurological wiring. “In one study of excessive gamers, brain imaging was done while subjects described their urge to play games online and recalled various gaming experiences when provoked by pictures,” said Aiken. “The results showed that their cravings had a similar neurobiological pattern as the cravings for drugs in drug addicts and alcohol in alcoholics.”

In 2014, an online drinking game known as “neck nomination” resulted in at least five deaths in the UK and Ireland. Participants uploaded videos of themselves drinking a pint of liquor in one go, after which they would nominate someone else to do the same within 24 hours. One man from Wales died after downing a pint of vodka in one go.

“There is no question that social media has the power to make children and young people do things that seem completely irrational, [things] that could kill them,” said Prof Barry O’Sullivan, of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics in Ireland.

While he acknowledged that any attempt to police the internet would, for now, be an exercise in futility, O’Sullivan said there were ways of introducing workable parameters that could regulate things like the age of consent for certain websites.

“I find it amazing how we have built complex data analytics systems that can interpret how an internet user is feeling, yet there is little or no interest in designing systems to determine how old a user is and whether the content they are searching for is age-appropriate,” he told THE WEEK. “It should be relatively straightforward to tell a 15-year-old from a 50-year-old based on the language they use, the things they ‘like’ etc.”

Several studies have indicated internet gaming disorder to be a male problem. It is also more prevalent in Asian countries than in North America and Europe. “China was one of the first countries in the world to define overuse of the internet as a clinical condition,” said Aiken. “The government has developed treatment centres to cure teens of internet addiction.”

Similarly in South Korea, action was taken after the government discovered a growing number of teens playing online games at the expense of sleep, schoolwork and real-world friends. “In 2011, a Shutdown Law was enacted, prohibiting those 16 and younger from logging online between midnight and 6am,” said Aiken.

In Taiwan, parents face fines of up to 50,000 Taiwanese dollars (about Rs 1 lakh) if their children’s use of electronic devices “exceeds a reasonable time”.

Asian authorities, it seems, are far more cognisant of the challenges of online gaming than their western counterparts. “Many European countries have opted to keep the age of consent for internet usage at the lowest age permissible—13,” said O’Sullivan. “Like so many other areas of life in the digital age, however, the law continues to play ‘catch-up’ with technology.”

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