Texas parents are grieving the death of their 15-year-old son after he committed suicide after allegedly taking part in the deadly “Blue Whale Challenge,” a sinister online game that is trending on social media.
Jorge Gonzalez says he found his 15-year-old son, Isaiah Gonzalez, hanging inside a bedroom closet on the morning of July 8 in their San Antonio, Texas, home, according to KSAT. Near his body lay a smartphone that Isaiah used to broadcast his suicide over social media. Now, Jorge and his wife, Angela Gonzalez, claim the online game that targets impressionable teenagers is the reason Isaiah took his own life.
The game is often referred to as the “Blue Whale Challenge” and is said to be operated by a group of mysterious administrators who connect with participants over social media sites such as Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook. Administrators reportedly ask participants to fulfill a series of increasingly dangerous challenges over the course of 50 days, which can dramatically vary, from watching horror movies, drinking bleach, to committing self-harm. But the game’s final challenge is fatal—to complete the game, participants are asked to commit suicide.
As part of the rules, participants must send photographic evidence notifying the administrator that they completed a challenge, and Isaiah’s parents say they found photographs on their son’s phone that fit this description. Many of them were sent to his friends.
“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,” Scarlett Cantu-Gonzales, Isaiah’s sister, told KSAT. Isaiah’s family says he was a typical high school student who recently joined his school’s ROTC program and was ready to start his sophomore year. He showed no warning signs of depression.
Because the game is secretive, it’s hard to discern how large it has become, who the victims are, or how real it is. But one Atlanta family said they believe the game also led to the suicide of a 16-year-old girl, they told CNN this week.
In Russia, where the challenge is thought to have gained popularity on the social network, VKontakte, the game has been reportedly linked to the deaths of 130 teens, though this has not been verified. Sky News spoke with a 20-year-old student who said his parents stopped him before he leapt from a 20-story building in Moscow as part of the game. “They start psychologically manipulating you. It is very professionally done,” the student, Oleg Kapaev, said. “You become a bit of a zombie.”
Now that talk of the game appears to be spreading in the U.S., schools and police departments are warning parents. The Massachusetts Sun Chronicle reports that local school officials emailed parents this month to inform them about the “Blue Whale Challenge,” and the Miami Police Department recently uploaded a “Social Media 101” video to Facebook that asks parents to monitor their child’s online activities closely.
Isaiah’s father agrees.
“I want them to go through their phones, look at their social media,” Jorge Gonzalez told KSAT. “If they’re on that challenge already, they can catch that from happening.”
When searching the hashtag “#bluewhalechallenge” on Instagram, a pop-up window within the app notifies users that the hashtag often encourages “behavior that can cause harm or even lead to death.” The app also offers a link for users to get support.
According to a recent report, there is an alarming rise in children hospitalized with suicidal thoughts. The “Blue Whale Challenge” comes amid the controversy surrounding the Netflix series “13 Reasons,” which deals with sensitive issues such as sexual assault, underage drinking, driving under the influence, body shaming and, ultimately, a graphic suicide scene.
Dr. Jane Pearson of the National Institute of Mental Health says that it is important that parents help their children navigate social media. “You can imagine another trend might come up at any time, so instead of trying to catch every trend, a better approach might be to improve social media literacy. To help kids understand how to manage it,” she told CNN.
According to the BBC, Philipp Budeikin, a 21-year-old currently in a pre-trial prison in St. Petersburg, pleaded guilty this year to inciting the suicide of 15 victims due to his part in organizing the game.
As for Jorge and Angela Gonzalez, they remember their son as kindhearted and happy. “Every day he was always making everybody smile,” they told NEWS4SA.
“It wasn’t his time to go,” his sister, Alexis Gonzalez, said. “He was way too young. He had his whole life ahead of him.”
Isaiah’s rosary is planned for today, and he will be laid to rest tomorrow at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Angela Gonzalez’s sister, Iris Cantu, tells PEOPLE.
If you or someone you know needs support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386or text “START” to 741-741.