By Mia Von Scha, Transformational Coach, motivational speaker, children’s author, student to two Zen Masters (aka kids), avid cloud watcher and lover of life,

There is a rumour about an online game going around the teen and preteen world, known as “Blue Whale” (also called VT) that is creating a sense of panic amongst parents. While there is very little evidence that this game actually exists, the story that has gone viral goes like this: Once kids sign up to the game they are put through 50 days of tasks (ranging from listening to a track of music right through to self-harming) that culminates on day 50 with the player’s suicide. The kids have to take photo’s of their completed tasks to ensure that they are complying with all orders and are warned that once they start playing they have to finish or they will be tracked down by the administrators. Carving a whale on your arm, is one such task.

Apparently the maker of the game has been arrested in Russia,  Whether this specific game even exists or not, whether it comes to SA or not, whether the number of suicides related to it are correct or not, you are probably feeling horrified right now, and you should. This is not the only social media suicide group out there. Just like the Pro-Ana (anorexia) sites that encourage girls to lose excessive amounts of weight, these suicide groups are not causing the problem, but they are making it more accessible for children to connect with likeminded people.

In our generation if we felt suicidal or had some form of self-loathing, we talked to our families, friends and other people in our environments about this. Nowadays it is becoming easier and easier for kids to withdraw and to connect online with people who will not give them the perspective they need, or worse, will encourage destructive behaviour.

Please let me be clear here. The Internet is not the problem. The suicide groups and games are not the problem. Children do not kill themselves just because someone in a game told them to. In fact they don’t even play games like that unless they are already in a state that draws them to things like this. Just like in our day heavy metal bands like “Judas Priest” were blamed for kids’ suicides because they sang about killing yourself, we are still turning our blame outward in the hopes that if we just get rid of these people or keep our kids off the net that the issue will dissipate.

It won’t.

There is evidence that suicide rates amongst children have doubled in the last decade (USA) and we need to be asking questions deeper than which social media sites should be banned from our children’s lives.

So how do we save our children from becoming “Blue Whales” in the first place, or bring them back from the brink of death if they are already involved in something like this?

1. The number one thing we can do is to be involved in our children’s lives. Connect with them deeply. Know their worlds – both online and off. Engage them in conversations about their lives and friends and feelings. If they spend a lot of time online go to the sites they frequent and find out what they’re about. Find some common ground in their world instead of always trying to get them into yours.

2. Know their values – the things that make them come alive – and respect these, whatever they are. Make sure that they have ample time every day to engage with the things that are most meaningful to them. Children who spend their whole lives just doing what their parents / society expect them to do and not what is truly important to them will always end up depressed

3. Stop applying so much pressure to your kids. Stop worrying too much about the future and what they’ll be in the future and how what they’re doing now will mess with their future. Start engaging with them as real, whole human beings in the present. We cannot live each moment as if it is just a means to some future end and still be psychologically healthy. Make sure your kids have lots of free time just to be.

4. Never teach your children to be one-sided. Depression can result when children are taught to always be kind, never cruel; always be gentle, never harsh; always be helpful, never lazy; etc. The pressure to be only half of what you naturally are as a human being causes feelings of self-loathing when you are unable to live up to these unrealistic ideals.

5. If your children have already shut you out and you can’t seem to find a way back in, get help – both for yourself and them. Find a trusted friend, an aunt, a therapist, a life coach, a teacher, or anyone who can connect with your child in a non-judgmental helpful way.

6. Trust your instincts. If you feel that something is not right, it probably isn’t. Trust yourself. Rather get unnecessary help prematurely than to have regrets later on. If you see signs that your child is self-harming (for example wearing Winter clothes in the middle of Summer, or refusing to wear a swim suit, or actual scars) then please take this seriously. It may never lead to suicide but it is a definite cry for help.

7. Speak to your kids about suicide games and sites. Talk to them about suicide and depression in general. Let them know that people sometimes feel desperate and that there are ways out of these feelings if you just connect with the right people. If your child expresses a desire to die, take this seriously. Most suicide victims tell at least one person of their intent before they go. Tell your kids to listen out for these cries from their friends.

8. Watch your child’s diet. This is so important. I have come across so many people who are depressed or anxious and they’re just missing some basic nutrients. If your child is depressed make sure he/she is getting enough Omega 3s, Vitamin B3 (Niacin), Vitamin D, Magnesium and Probiotics. Gut health has been directly liked to depression and anxiety. Cut out sugar and refined carbs. Discuss diet with your child and the effects that this might have on their feelings and behavior.

9. Watch for changes in your child’s behavior. Decreased appetite, changes in sleep habits, dark rings under the eyes, being more secretive, withdrawing socially, sadness, irritability, anger, loss of interest in things they used to love. If you think there is a problem take some action.

10, Help your children to find the right resources and tools to deal with issues they are having in their lives. As adults, we often see their problems as trivial, but to them these may feel very real and overwhelming. Teasing, bullying, test pressures, love relationships, financial differences, loneliness, as well as the greater pressures of domestic violence, moving, death, divorce, abuse, alcoholism in the home, etc.

11. You don’t necessarily need to limit your child’s Internet usage (with all the kids with mobile devices now this is very difficult to do anyway), but definitely be aware of what it they are using the Internet for. Children often turn to the Internet to fulfill needs and values that are not being fulfilled elsewhere in their lives – for example they may frequent social media sites because they don’t have enough free play time with friends, or they may play endlessly on Minecraft because it allows them a freedom of movement and expression that they don’t get in their daily life. See if you can help them to find real world ways to fulfill their needs.

12.  Make sure they know they are loved. What all of us fundamentally need, the thing that will really help to prevent any of us going down a path of destruction, is to be loved and accepted for who we are. We think we’re loving our kids completely and that they know this, but so often there is a communication breakdown between what we feel and how we express this. Check in with your child and know their world… online, offline, internal and external. Tell them you love them every day (and not linked to something they have done), show them you love them (hugs, kisses, smiles, pats, foot massages), tell them they are enough exactly as they are (write on the mirror “I am enough” so they can read it daily), give them small meaningful gifts out of the blue (a flower you picked on your way home, a poem written just for them), spend quality time together doing things that they enjoy, do small meaningful things for them (surprise them with a play date, make a cup of hot chocolate, clean out their hamster cage)… be creative!

13. Listen… listen… listen. Learn listening skills. Be present. Be quiet. Don’t ask lots of questions. Reflect back to them their thoughts and feelings. Be non-judgmental. Never tell your kids that they are not feeling what they’re feeling or that they shouldn’t feel what they’re feeling.

People like the alleged creator of Blue Whale will always be out there waiting to prey on those children who are in a state susceptible to their tricks. The solution to this is never going to be eliminating these people or banning our kids from the net. The solution starts at home.

I realise I’ve given you a long list here to help you to help your kids, but what it fundamentally comes down to is just two things: Love and Presence. Stop your child from becoming a victim of these suicide predators by adding a healthy dose of presence to your parenting game and a huge daily dose of love to your children.

Click here to find a list of companies that work with and support teenagers in Gauteng and here in Kzn.

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