WASHINGTON – Rina Palenkova was 17 in November 2015 when she posted a goodbye selfie moments before committing suicide.
The photo of the Russian teen went viral internationally, bringing attention for the first time to a cruel and deadly “game” called the “Blue Whale Challenge” that is now blamed for the suicide deaths of hundreds of teen girls and boys all over the world – with a shocking number in the U.S.
Last week, months after Philipp Budeikin, 22, the creator of the “Blue Whale Challenge,” was convicted by a Siberian court in connection with persuading up to 17 teen girls to take their own lives, he was sentenced to three years in prison. He explained that his motive was cleansing society of what he described as “biodegradable waste,” not emotionally troubled human beings.
Budeikin’s Blue Whale Challenge has been described as a “shadowy online phenomenon,” a hideous mind manipulation that assigns participants 50 bizarre, violent and, eventually, lethal tasks. It is named after blue whales’ tendency to beach themselves on purpose before death.
The tasks include tweeting that you are a blue whale using a hashtag. Another instructs participants to cut an arm three times. The last suggests victims take their own life. Players complete the tasks over the course of 50 days. Some reports say participants give a Blue Whale Challenge administrator updates on their progress. Failure to do so, results in administrators threatening them.
In June, Russian investigators said Ilya Sodorov, a 26-year-old postman from Moscow, confessed to being an administrator to whom the game’s participants had to give progress reports. According to one report in the Russian news outlet Novaya Gazeta, the Blue Whale Challenge has been linked to suicides by 130 Russian children in the last six months alone.
Russian investigators have not corroborated those findings, but, judging from recent police and news reports in the U.S., there is little question the death toll has reached into the hundreds around the world since 2015.
Though the scope and scale of the Blue Whale Challenge have yet to be confirmed, in the United States, parents of at least two children who died by suicide think Budeikin’s game may have spurred their kids to take their own lives — and other parents and school officials aren’t taking any chances.
One of the most recent U.S. cases involved Isaiah Gonzalez, a Texas teen whose family members say he livestreamed his suicide, using a shoe to prop up his phone to capture the event. The family reported that some of Gonzalez’s friends saw his posts to social media that suggested he was participating in the Blue Whale Challenge, but didn’t take it seriously.
“They blew it off like it was a joke, and if one of them would have said something, one of them would have called us, he would have been alive,” the teen’s sister said. “I want parents to go through their phones, look at their social media,” Gonzalez’ father told local a local ABC affiliate. “If they’re on that challenge already, they can [stop] that from happening.”
Some social media outlets appear to be taking the blue whale challenge seriously. If you search #BlueWhaleChallenge on Instagram’s mobile app, a window pops up encouraging you to seek support if you’re thinking about harming yourself.
In May, public schools in Baldwin, Alabama, warned parents that their children may be participating in the dangerous Russian “game.” Later that month, police officers in Miami released a video on Facebook alerting parents of the game’s warning signs.
Meanwhile, however, the U.K. Safer Internet Centre has labeled the Blue Whale Challenge as “fake news.”
“It is through research and consultation with other colleagues it has come to our attention that the ‘Blue Whale’ is an example of a sensationalized fake news story,” UKSIC said.
One of the most dramatic victim stories is “Nadia,” a pseudonym for a 16-year-old girl from Georgia who took her life after apparently participating in the Blue Whale Challenge. A gifted artist, Nadia had posted in her bedroom a photo of blue whale overlaying a hand-painted background. When she took her life in May, none of her friends or family members suspected anything was amiss.
Along with the contents of her journal, the family recovered some of Nadia’s social media posts from the days leading up to her death – a photo of her legs dangling over the roof of her house, pictures of self-inflicted cuts on her body and a final post of train tracks with the words “good bye.”
Her older brother, Marty, started going through her things to look for clues. He noticed an unusual pattern among drawings and journal entries, including a small sketch of a girl with a name beneath it in Russian.
An internet search of the name turned up the story of Rina Palenkova.
Continuing to research, Marty remembered the picture of the blue whale taped next to the mirror in his sister’s room. He looked through her sketches and found pages of whale drawings and magazine cutouts with the words “I Am a Blue Whale” pasted over them, accompanied by drawings possibly suggesting she was considering suicide.
The search for more information led to reports of similar cases in Asia, Europe, and South America.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has opened a Child Fatality Review of Nadia’s suicide and is aware that the drawings and Russian writings may have a connection to Blue Whale. Special Agent Trebor Randle confirmed that this is the first case in Georgia potentially related to Blue Whale.
“Obviously, doing nothing about it has seen a rise,” Randle said. “Kids know about it and may already be doing it. Parents and educators are the ones who don’t know.”
According to Randle, Nadia was the 20th reported teen to commit suicide in Georgia this year, and since her death in May, there has been one more.
The family of yet another non-teen suicide victim, Natasha Cadena, 32, of Wichita Falls, believe she was convinced by the Blue Whale Challenge. She hanged herself July 4, but her mother, Sandy Cardena, says that while her daughter took her own life, she was encouraged to do so.
Budeikin, a psychology major who confessed to creating the phenomenon, was arrested last November and using the VK.com Russian social media site to encourage between 15 and 17 teens to commit suicide. He was sentenced last week to three years and four months in prison.
Some of the other challenges involve drawing a blue whale, watching horror movies all night and scoping out locations for their deaths – such as going to the top of tall buildings or visiting train stations. The challenges are said to begin at 4:20 am. On the 50th day of the challenge, participants are instructed to kill themselves.
Dr. Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, a national nonprofit for suicide prevention, warns that parents need to be watching their children for any of those signs. He encourages asking kids whether they are playing Blue Whale or have friends who are playing. However, he reiterated that “there is no need to panic, because this is not yet a crisis, rather a caution to alert people in advance.”
Google data show that online searches for Blue Whale in the United States began in late February, with interest spiking across the country in mid-May. They may be linked to media coverage in the U.K. around that time.
U.S. investigators are looking into the details of what the game is – if anything – and it’s important to note that it has remained relatively unknown. Meanwhile, authorities say that Nadia’s death provides enough evidence to issue a warning to parents and educators that the ideas spread by something called Blue Whale pose a threat to vulnerable teens.
Blue Whale has also been known as A Silent House, A Sea of Whales, F57 or F-57 and more may appear.
Last week, the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network announced it is advising parents on suicide prevention amid growing concern over the Blue Whale Challenge: “A new school year is starting soon, and along with it will come academic and social pressures that can push young people to the crisis point,” said Scott Ridgeway, executive director of TSPN. “It could leave them vulnerable to online and other media that glamorize suicide and present it as a viable solution to their problems.”