The perilous influence of social media on young minds and lives seems to have become an annually perpetuating trend.
The dust has barely settled on the catastrophic consequences that unfolded with the Blue Whale Challenge - the first "game" in the realm of cyber-bullying that has reportedly claimed the lives of over 140 Russian teenagers and many others by luring them into an online game that eventually pushes them to take their own lives.
So when a twelve-year-old girl in Argentina was found dead in her backyard in July this year and the investigations unearthed similar links to a WhatsApp game called "Momo", it was clear that a new online epidemic was on the rise. A parallel universe on social media is unfurling a new age terrorism that is targeting our youth which should be the bugle call for all parents, teachers and governments to wake up and step up.
Conceived in Japan, the Momo Challenge entices the user to contact a "Momo" account through WhatsApp and then threatens them to perform dangerous tasks using terrifying graphic images, with the final task being suicide. Reportedly, the Argentinian girl's suicide news comes after a sixteen-year-old boy took his life after passing the game on to the girl. The two suicides, barely 48 hours apart shook the entire country of Columbia and the reverberations of this shock began to be felt in other countries too where the awareness and fear have already spread like wildfire.
In the city of Mumbai in India, teachers and parents have written to the Minister of Communication and IT, requesting him to urgently ban the online game from entering the country.
"When we are aware of the threat the challenge poses, it's better to take proactive steps to stop it, instead of waiting for it to claim another victim. As everyone is speaking about it across media platforms, we are sure children will get to know about it in due course of time. It's better to be safe than sorry" said Mr. Anil Bornare, head of a Mumbai Education council - Maharashtra Rajya Shikshak Parishad.
In spite of this, an 18-year-old boy in West Bengal and a 15-year-old girl in Ajmer have allegedly taken their lives at the behest of the Momo Challenge.
Warnings have been issued by the authorities in other countries too like Mexico, Germany, United States, France and Spain where cases of contact with the Momo challenge have been heard of but no deaths reported so far. A cop in Ohio expressed his concern when the Momo avatar appeared in the popular game Minecraft that his son was playing. It quickly became clear that the bulging-eyed, distorted image of a woman called "Momo" could reach impressionable young minds through any social media and online means.
While it is being speculated that this game is a form of bait being used by criminals to steal data by way of extortion online, the perpetuity with which such challenges seem to return each year begs the question - what's next? How many more young lives will be sacrificed at the altar of online violence and seduction?
Many of us are new parents whose children are yet to be acquainted with the world of gadgets and the internet while many still have children who are already in their teens and prime targets of such cyber bullying. The need of the hour is for teachers and parents to take preventive measures to ensure children are made aware of the dangerous consequences of indulging in such online games and encourage them to warn their peers about them too.
Experts and authorities in various countries have offered advice on how to combat the influence of such cyber violence and protect our children and loved ones from it. It is important that requests from such social media games and unknown numbers and people are never accepted.
School A To Z - an online platform by NSW School in Australia offers extensive advice and tips on how cyberbullying can be tackled both in school and at home. For those of us whose children have thankfully not yet fallen prey to cyberbullying, the opportunity of being able to warn our children and guide them towards preventive measures beforehand is priceless.
Talking to children and educating them about the ill-effects of social media and cyberbullying and the dangers of accepting Momo and Blue Whale - like grotesque game invitations is crucial. Such a pre-emptive approach of an early education on cyber-bullying can go a long way in saving them from becoming potential victims.
It is also important to constantly monitor their online activity and experts advise locating the computer in a shared space in the house, accessible by all instead of the child's bedroom.
A watchful eye on the child's behaviour has never been more crucial today both on and offline.
Unusual behaviour such as resisting the use of cell phones and computers, depression or uncharacteristic illness, avoiding school and meeting friends and an unusually quiet disposition are all signs that psychologists advise that parents must watch out for and red flag as symptoms of cyberbullying.
The 18 year old Texan girl who shot herself in the chest in 2016 as a result of cyberbullying, the 12-year old girl in New Jersey in 2017, the MBBS Student from Kozhikode, Kerala in 2017, the 15 year old Indian-origin boy in Leicester, UK - the list is endless and the statistics are startling, to say the very least. The Netflix show "13 Reasons Why" that deals with a similar story of a seventeen-year-old girl who commits suicide is said to also have instigated a substantial rise in suicide searches online. It is important to recognize the dangers of airing such shows especially when a large demographic that has access to them is precisely the one that is bound to be easily swayed by it.
Last year it was called the Blue Whale Challenge. This year it is the Momo Challenge that is taking our children away from us. We must not allow this to become the new norm.
As explained by Dr. Sai Suchitra, Behavioral Medical Consultant for Apollo Hospital, “The age-group of 11-18 is most vulnerable as their decision-making ability and reasoning skills are just building up. Various factors such as low self-esteem, poor social/family support, traits like high risk-taking, low consequential thinking, peer group influences also add to vulnerability. In such situations, these games give them a reward of ‘points’, ‘votes’, ‘tags’ and others for just following their instructions. It is essential for parents to spend quality time with their adolescents so as to give them an environment to share with them their fears, concerns and emotions."
Awareness and education by schools, stricter cyberbullying laws and parental guidance and involvement can be the trifecta that ends the annual spell that is claiming young lives around the world.
Shaira Mohan is a freelance writer and fiction author. She writes for many news publications and has authored short stories such as Raghu and Wedding Woes.