skip to main content

Title: Examining the Self-harm and Suicide Contagion Effects Related to the Portrayal of the Blue Whale Challenge on YouTube and Twitter (Preprint)
Background: Research suggests that direct exposure to suicidal behavior and acts of self-harm through social media may increase suicidality through imitation and modeling, with adolescents representing a particularly vulnerable population. One example of viral self-harming behavior that could potentially be propagated through social media is the Blue Whale Challenge (BWC). Objective: We investigate how people portray BWC on social media and the potential harm this may pose to vulnerable populations. Methods: We first used a grounded approach coding 60 publicly posted YouTube videos, 1112 comments on those videos, and 150 Twitter posts that explicitly referenced BWC. We deductively coded the YouTube videos based on the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) Messaging guidelines. Results: Overall, 83.33%, 28.33%, and 68.67% of the YouTube videos, comments, and Twitter posts were trying to raise awareness and discourage participation in BWC. Yet, about 37% of the videos violated six or more of the SPRC messaging guidelines. Conclusions: These posts might have the problematic effect of normalizing BWC through repeated exposure, modeling, and reinforcement of self-harming and suicidal behavior, especially among vulnerable adolescents. Greater efforts are needed to educate social media users and content generators on safe messaging guidelines and factors that encourage versus discourage contagion effects.  more » « less
Award ID(s):
Author(s) / Creator(s):
; ; ; ; ;
Date Published:
Journal Name:
JMIR Mental Health
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Introduction Social media has created opportunities for children to gather social support online (Blackwell et al., 2016; Gonzales, 2017; Jackson, Bailey, & Foucault Welles, 2018; Khasawneh, Rogers, Bertrand, Madathil, & Gramopadhye, 2019; Ponathil, Agnisarman, Khasawneh, Narasimha, & Madathil, 2017). However, social media also has the potential to expose children and adolescents to undesirable behaviors. Research showed that social media can be used to harass, discriminate (Fritz & Gonzales, 2018), dox (Wood, Rose, & Thompson, 2018), and socially disenfranchise children (Page, Wisniewski, Knijnenburg, & Namara, 2018). Other research proposes that social media use might be correlated to the significant increase in suicide rates and depressive symptoms among children and adolescents in the past ten years (Mitchell, Wells, Priebe, & Ybarra, 2014). Evidence based research suggests that suicidal and unwanted behaviors can be promulgated through social contagion effects, which model, normalize, and reinforce self-harming behavior (Hilton, 2017). These harmful behaviors and social contagion effects may occur more frequently through repetitive exposure and modelling via social media, especially when such content goes “viral” (Hilton, 2017). One example of viral self-harming behavior that has generated significant media attention is the Blue Whale Challenge (BWC). The hearsay about this challenge is that individuals at all ages are persuaded to participate in self-harm and eventually kill themselves (Mukhra, Baryah, Krishan, & Kanchan, 2017). Research is needed specifically concerning BWC ethical concerns, the effects the game may have on teenagers, and potential governmental interventions. To address this gap in the literature, the current study uses qualitative and content analysis research techniques to illustrate the risk of self-harm and suicide contagion through the portrayal of BWC on YouTube and Twitter Posts. The purpose of this study is to analyze the portrayal of BWC on YouTube and Twitter in order to identify the themes that are presented on YouTube and Twitter posts that share and discuss BWC. In addition, we want to explore to what extent are YouTube videos compliant with safe and effective suicide messaging guidelines proposed by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC). Method Two social media websites were used to gather the data: 60 videos and 1,112 comments from YouTube and 150 posts from Twitter. The common themes of the YouTube videos, comments on those videos, and the Twitter posts were identified using grounded, thematic content analysis on the collected data (Padgett, 2001). Three codebooks were built, one for each type of data. The data for each site were analyzed, and the common themes were identified. A deductive coding analysis was conducted on the YouTube videos based on the nine SPRC safe and effective messaging guidelines (Suicide Prevention Resource Center, 2006). The analysis explored the number of videos that violated these guidelines and which guidelines were violated the most. The inter-rater reliabilities between the coders ranged from 0.61 – 0.81 based on Cohen’s kappa. Then the coders conducted consensus coding. Results & Findings Three common themes were identified among all the posts in the three social media platforms included in this study. The first theme included posts where social media users were trying to raise awareness and warning parents about this dangerous phenomenon in order to reduce the risk of any potential participation in BWC. This was the most common theme in the videos and posts. Additionally, the posts claimed that there are more than 100 people who have played BWC worldwide and provided detailed description of what each individual did while playing the game. These videos also described the tasks and different names of the game. Only few videos provided recommendations to teenagers who might be playing or thinking of playing the game and fewer videos mentioned that the provided statistics were not confirmed by reliable sources. The second theme included posts of people that either criticized the teenagers who participated in BWC or made fun of them for a couple of reasons: they agreed with the purpose of BWC of “cleaning the society of people with mental issues,” or they misunderstood why teenagers participate in these kind of challenges, such as thinking they mainly participate due to peer pressure or to “show off”. The last theme we identified was that most of these users tend to speak in detail about someone who already participated in BWC. These videos and posts provided information about their demographics and interviews with their parents or acquaintances, who also provide more details about the participant’s personal life. The evaluation of the videos based on the SPRC safe messaging guidelines showed that 37% of the YouTube videos met fewer than 3 of the 9 safe messaging guidelines. Around 50% of them met only 4 to 6 of the guidelines, while the remaining 13% met 7 or more of the guidelines. Discussion This study is the first to systematically investigate the quality, portrayal, and reach of BWC on social media. Based on our findings from the emerging themes and the evaluation of the SPRC safe messaging guidelines we suggest that these videos could contribute to the spread of these deadly challenges (or suicide in general since the game might be a hoax) instead of raising awareness. Our suggestion is parallel with similar studies conducted on the portrait of suicide in traditional media (Fekete & Macsai, 1990; Fekete & Schmidtke, 1995). Most posts on social media romanticized people who have died by following this challenge, and younger vulnerable teens may see the victims as role models, leading them to end their lives in the same way (Fekete & Schmidtke, 1995). The videos presented statistics about the number of suicides believed to be related to this challenge in a way that made suicide seem common (Cialdini, 2003). In addition, the videos presented extensive personal information about the people who have died by suicide while playing the BWC. These videos also provided detailed descriptions of the final task, including pictures of self-harm, material that may encourage vulnerable teens to consider ending their lives and provide them with methods on how to do so (Fekete & Macsai, 1990). On the other hand, these videos both failed to emphasize prevention by highlighting effective treatments for mental health problems and failed to encourage teenagers with mental health problems to seek help and providing information on where to find it. YouTube and Twitter are capable of influencing a large number of teenagers (Khasawneh, Ponathil, Firat Ozkan, & Chalil Madathil, 2018; Pater & Mynatt, 2017). We suggest that it is urgent to monitor social media posts related to BWC and similar self-harm challenges (e.g., the Momo Challenge). Additionally, the SPRC should properly educate social media users, particularly those with more influence (e.g., celebrities) on elements that boost negative contagion effects. While the veracity of these challenges is doubted by some, posting about the challenges in unsafe manners can contribute to contagion regardless of the challlenges’ true nature. 
    more » « less
  2. null (Ed.)
    A social media phenomenon that has received limited research attention is the advent and propagation of viral online challenges. Several of these challenges entail self-harming behavior, which, combined with their viral nature, poses physical and psychological risks for both participants and viewers. The objective of this study is to identify the nature of what people post about the social media challenges that vary in their level of risk. To do so, we conducted a qualitative analysis of three viral social media challenges, the Blue Whale, Tide Pod, and Ice Bucket challenges, based on 180 YouTube videos, 3,607 comments on those YouTube videos, and 450 Twitter posts. We identified common themes across the YouTube videos, comments, and Twitter posts: (1) promoting education and awareness, (2) criticizing the participants, (3) providing detailed information about the participants, (4) giving viewers a tutorial on how to participate, and (5) attempting to understand this seemingly senseless online behavior. We used social norm theory to discuss what leads people to post about the challenges and how posts intended to raise awareness about harmful challenges could potentially create a contagion effect by spreading knowledge about them, thereby increasing participation. Finally, we proposed design implications that could potentially minimize the risks and propagation of harmful social media challenges. 
    more » « less
  3. The Blue Whale Challenge (BWC) is an online viral game ” that allegedly encourages youth and young adults towards self harming behaviors that could eventually lead to suicide. The BWC can be situated within a larger phenomenon of viral online self harm challenges, which may be propagated through both social media and news sources. Research has established that suicide is a global public health issue that is known to be influenced by media reporting. Violation of safe messaging guidelines has be en shown to increase imitative suicides, particularly in youth and young adults. Given the confirmed effects of news media reporting, we analyzed 150 digital newspaper articles reporting on the BWC to assess whether they adhered to suicide prevention safe messaging guidelines. Overall, 81% of the articles violated at least one contagion related guideline, most commonly normalizing suicide, discussing means of suicide, and sensationalizing. Even though the majority (91%) of the articles adhered to at least o ne health promotion guideline, such as emphasizing prevention, the articles did not follow these guidelines on a deep and comprehensive level. Through thematic analysis, we also found evidence of potential misinformation in reporting, where the articles un equivocally attributed many suicides to the BWC with little or no evidence. Additionally, articles often stated an individual s reason for participating in the challenge without interviewing the individual or those close to the individual, another aspect o f potential misinformation due to lack of evidence. A contribution of the current study is the synthesis of safe messaging guidelines that can be used in future research. This study contributes to the understanding of news reporting practices regarding sui cide and self-harm in regard to the BWC and similar online challenges. We discuss how sensationalized news media reports on the BWC could unintentionally propagate suicide contagion effects that normalize self harming behaviors among youth. We then examine implications for practice and policy, such using automated approaches to aid reporters in adhering to safe messaging guidelines. 
    more » « less
  4. Abstract Objective

    Eating disorder (ED) behaviors are often characterized as indirect forms of self‐harm. However, recent research has found less clear demarcations between direct self‐harming behaviors (e.g., nonsuicidal self‐injury [NSSI], suicidal behaviors) than previously assumed. The aim of this study was to replicate findings of this prior research on adult populations in adolescents with a history of restrictive eating.


    A total of 117 adolescents between ages 12–14 were included in the study. Participants reported the presence and frequency of binge eating, compensatory, restrictive eating, and NSSI. Participants also reported thoughts of and intentions to hurt and kill themselves when engaging in each behavior on average. Thet‐tests and linear effects models were conducted to compare self‐harming thoughts and intentions across behaviors.


    Participants reported at least some intent to hurt themselves physically in the moment and in the long‐term when engaging in all ED behaviors and NSSI, and reported engaging in these behaviors while thinking about suicide. Direct self‐harming knowledge and intentions were most frequently reported with NSSI and longer‐term knowledge and intentions via NSSI and restrictive eating. Additionally, participants reported some suicidal thoughts and intentions across behaviors.


    This study replicates prior research, suggesting that adolescents engage in ED behaviors and NSSI with non‐zero self‐harming and suicidal thoughts and intentions. ED behaviors and NSSI may better be explained on a continuum. Implications include the recommendation of safety planning during ED treatment.

    Public Significance Statement

    This study highlights the overlap between eating disorder (ED) behaviors, nonsuicidal self‐injury (NSSI), and suicide. Though clear distinctions typically exist for motives of self‐harming behavior between ED behaviors (i.e., indirect, in the long run) and NSSI (i.e., direct, in the moment), this research suggests that intentions for self‐harming and suicide may exist on a continuum. Clinical ED treatment should consider safety planning as part of routine interventions.

    more » « less
  5. Redbird, Beth ; Harbridge-Yong, Laurel ; Mersey, Rachel Davis (Ed.)
    In our analysis, we examine whether the labelling of social media posts as misinformation affects the subsequent sharing of those posts by social media users. Conventional understandings of the presentation-of-self and work in cognitive psychology provide different understandings of whether labelling misinformation in social media posts will reduce sharing behavior. Part of the problem with understanding whether interventions will work hinges on how closely social media interactions mirror other interpersonal interactions with friends and associates in the off-line world. Our analysis looks at rates of misinformation labelling during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic on Facebook and Twitter, and then assesses whether sharing behavior is deterred misinformation labels applied to social media posts. Our results suggest that labelling is relatively successful at lowering sharing behavior, and we discuss how our results contribute to a larger understanding of the role of existing inequalities and government responses to crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. 
    more » « less