In The Media

Brazil's Teens Discover a Deadly New Game

by Mac Margolis (feat. Robert Muggah)

April 24, 2017

When my 12-year-old daughter got home from school the other day, she bee-lined to the computer with the sense of purpose she normally reserves for Katy Perry. "You gotta see this," she ordered, commandeering the mouse. I recognized the face staring back at me as that of the Brazilian YouTuber whose antic videos are the toast of seventh grade and the bane of homework. Only now, the young clown had a grave message, diminished only slightly by his shock of pink hair: depression.

OK, no mystery there. From Netflix's "Thirteen Reasons Why" to the World Health Organization's 2017 campaign theme, funk is in vogue, and in societies as diverse as India to Iran. That the topic is trending among the whatever generation -- tweens and teens -- seems only fitting. But in Brazil? After all, come crisis or carnival, this sunny land consistently places high in world happiness rankings. Even amid the worst recession on record, Brazilians bagged 22nd place out of 150 countries in the latest Gallup Happiness poll and rated their lives on a par with those of their peers in the world's high-income nations, while São Paulo is home to some of the most optimistic urban youth in the world. 

So why are a Rio de Janeiro web jester and his devotees spouting gravitas about depression, bullying and suicide? Blame it on the Baleia Azul. That's the local franchise of The Blue Whale, a bizarre challenge of uncertain origin -- some trace the "game" to Russia -- whereby young people recruited on social media agree to perform a series of macabre tasks, purportedly culminating in self-mutilation and even suicide. Some participants who escaped the game spoke of being strong-armed into complicity by mentors, or "curators," who allegedly threatened their families if they quit.

The number of victims is guesswork. In recent days, worry has spread as Brazilian media have reported cases of injuries or threats against participants in at least eight states, and Rio police are investigating at least two attempted suicides. In a widely shared Facebook video, Rafael Greca, the mayor of Curitiba, a city in southern Brazil, gathered his cabinet to warn about the dangers of the game, which he said had put seven youths in the hospital for lacerations.

It's unclear how widely the game has spread, who's behind the incitement to suicide, and how many Brazilians are at risk. One purported recruit caused panic when he warned of his plan to hand out poisoned candy to grade-schoolers, but his text message was later dismissed as a likely hoax.

And there is the challenge behind the Blue Whale challenge. Suicide pacts are hardly new, but take a high-crime culture, add a vulnerable demographic and a hyper-connected society, and you have the fixings for a national frenzy. "The expansion of internet connectivity and social media have created new opportunities for entering into suicide pacts," Robert Muggah, who analyses violence and cybercrime at the Igarapé Institute, an independent Brazilian think tank told me. "The practice of suicide has migrated online, and younger people may be acting alone, or as part of a wider collective."

Suicide is not yet seen as a national epidemic, but that might be a blind spot. Though Brazilians, understandably, are far better known for their fevered murder rate, suicide rates have been ticking upward for years, alarmingly so for young men (to 8.9 per 100,000 in 2012, nearly double the national youth suicide rate), according to Brazil's annual Map of Violence survey. Brazil has shuttered 85 psychiatric hospitals and eliminated 40 percent of all beds for psychiatric patients in the last 11 years, according to the National Council of Medicine.

"Social media brought suicide to the surface, but it didn't invent it," said Alexandrina Meleiro, coordinator for the Brazilian Association of Psychiatry's research commission on suicide and prevention. "We have a growing public health problem." Brazil's deadly Blue Whale scare may itself turn out to be overblown. But like the homonymous cetacean, what's below the surface is too big to overlook.

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