Equip colleagues, peers to help susceptible students reject harmful apps, online games

Students with depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges naturally seek out others with similar issues for support and guidance when they are on social media.

But danger can also lurk in these venues.

One online threat that has received a lot of media coverage in the past few months is called the Blue Whale challenge.

Kids are reportedly targeted through social media apps, such as Snapchat and Instagram, and directed to download an app. Then a “curator” manipulates them into completing 50 daily tasks, such as watching horror movies alone at odd hours and cutting numbers and pictures into their skin. They must furnish photographs and videos as proof. They are expected to complete suicide on the final day.

There have been at least two deaths in the U.S. that parents have blamed on Blue Whale and numerous other reports of teenagers harming themselves as part of the challenge, but investigations remain inconclusive.

Nevertheless, schools nationwide have been sending out warnings to staff members and parents about the game.

Regardless of whether the Blue Whale challenge is an urban legend, it should serve as a reminder to you and your colleagues that social media interactions have a strong influence on students and can lead them to hurt themselves if they are already emotionally vulnerable. Step up your prevention efforts to ensure students don’t fall into any online traps.

“All of us in education should be doing more,” said Frank Zenere, a school psychologist and department chair for the crisis management program at Miami-Dade County (Fla.) Schools. “Prevention efforts need to be aimed at the protective factors that build up some sense of resilience and resistance to getting involved in these unhealthy behaviors.”

Take these steps to help prevent self-injuries and suicides tied to online games and apps:

• Strengthen social media literacy. Ensure your colleagues are aware of the risks for students of seeking connections online, Zenere said. “They need to be in touch with the current tone of social media and how to get away from the sensationalism to deal with it,” he said. “You don’t want to feel as an adult that you don’t have a voice and can’t educate or help.” Tap into online resources on suicide prevention and bullying prevention that provide talking points for appropriately bringing up issues with students, Zenere said.

• Encourage parents to set limits on social media access. Recommend that parents, especially those of middle school students, who are purportedly the prime targets of the Blue Whale game, keep the family computer in a public space in the house so they can observe their child’s use of it, Zenere said. Remind parents that they can monitor their child’s use of social media and texting on their mobile devices. “They can let their kids know in advance that they’re going to be checking their Facebook and other accounts and looking at their text messages periodically,” he said. If parents notice anything odd, such as a hashtag or language they don’t recognize, encourage them to ask their child about it.

Underscore that a lot of the online games and apps that influence students to hurt themselves use techniques similar to bullying tactics, including coercion and manipulation, Zenere said. “The Blue Whale challenge tells vulnerable teens what they should do, and they are open to the message,” he said. “It’s another facet of how manipulation can occur using individuals who are at risk already.”

• Work with students on prevention, support. Keep an eye out for students with identified emotional disturbances, such as depression, as well as students who you know may be at risk of depression or another mental illness, Zenere said. Also, promote positive connections between these students and colleagues so kids know who they can go to for support if they are considering self-harm or suicide or suspect a peer is, he said. And help kids build resilience and the capacity to reject outside influences to harm themselves, Zenere said.

Peers may serve as the way a vulnerable student may become aware of and decide to participate in a harmful game, Zenere said. “There’s a curiosity if others say they are involved and recommend it,” he said. So, educate kids on the risks of indiscriminately following peers’ advice on social media and encourage them to report when they believe someone is under the influence of a possibly harmful online game or app to stem the spread of the threat.

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues for LRP Publications.

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