Tencent Closes Chat Groups Believed to Encourage Suicide

2017-05-09 12:14:19

A global social media “game” based on self-harm and suicide appears to have spread to Chinese cyberspace.

On Saturday, Chinese internet giant Tencent discovered the term “Blue Whale” — referring to an online challenge that culminates in participants being urged to take their own lives — in 12 groups on its QQ social media portal, reported state outlet China News Service on Tuesday. Tencent has shut down the groups and blocked searches for the keyword, the report said.

“Blue Whale” allegedly originated in 2013 on VK, a Russian social network, and has since been reported in countries across Central Asia and South America. According to Russian news reports, it has been linked to over 100 suicides among teenagers in Russia, though no definitive evidence has been confirmed. The “game” is initiated by net users who create online chat groups and assign the mostly teenage participants an escalating series of challenges for 50 days, including watching horror movies and waking up at early hours.

Though the search term “Blue Whale” in Mandarin no longer returned any results on QQ as of Tuesday afternoon, a search for “4:20” — referring to a challenge in the game that involves waking up at 4:20 a.m. — revealed nearly a hundred groups, many of which included “Blue Whale” in their titles.

Among the oldest of these groups is one called “Blue Whale 4:20 Wake Me Up to Study,” which began in September 2016 and now has more than 1,400 members. Another group from May 2017 displays the description: “Once the game is on, don’t quit … Blue Whale lets me learn everything about you and deprive you of your life.”

Tencent stated that its investigation is ongoing and will expand to include related search terms, adding that abetting suicide is a criminal act and requesting that users report any mentions of the game they see online. Some of the QQ groups with mentions of “Blue Whale” seen on Tuesday had been removed from the site later in the day, while others using the same terms had been newly created.

Stigma and lack of awareness surround depression in China, which also faces a shortage of mental health care resources. Between 5 and 6 percent of Chinese people were living with depression in 2015, according estimates from the mental health center at the Chinese Center for Disease Control. The issue is even more pressing among youth: A 2016 study showed that almost 1.2 million Chinese people aged 15 to 24 have depressive disorders, and that number is on the rise.

Li Xianyun, deputy director of the Beijing Psychological Crisis Research and Intervention Center — one of the leading suicide prevention organizations in China — said Tencent has reached out to the center about collaborating on a mental health initiative. “Tencent is working with us to develop a system that sends out emergency phone numbers to people who express that they want to commit suicide,” Li told Sixth Tone. “They plan to send out notices in group chats or on web pages so that people have access to help.”

Li advises families to take children’s threats of self-harm seriously and to seek professional help when necessary. “Parents sometimes ignore the signals their children send,” Li said. “When a child says he or she is going to commit suicide, [parents] should pay attention.”

Additional reporting: Wang Yiwei; contributions: Liang Chenyu; editor: Kevin Schoenmakers. 

(Header image: A view of a wall decorated with a mosaic of QQ users’ avatars at Tencent’s corporate headquarters in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, Aug. 28, 2009. VCG)