• Sugata Mishra, a resident of Kokar, was stumped when her 10-year-old school-going son while toying with her smartphone on Tuesday night asked her how the Blue Whale Challenge was played
• Paramjeet Kaur, principal of Sarala Birla Public School in Mahilong, during a casual interaction with some tenth graders last week asked what they knew about the blue whale. She expected the children to talk about the magnificent marine mammal, but was unpleasantly surprised by their impeccable knowledge about the game of self-harm instead
The Blue Whale Challenge - a suicidal game that derives its curious name from the beaching tendency of the world's largest animal - has left parents and schools in Ranchi and elsewhere in Jharkhand staring at the sinister side of Internet technology.
Schools are scrambling to fix safety protocol against online games - with at least one capital cradle convening an exclusive PTM (parent-teacher meeting) last Sunday to ensure students were not allowed unrestrained use of mobile phones with Internet connection at home - but the challenge for parents is perhaps far greater than perceived.
Mishra, whose son is a Class V student of St Xavier's School in Doranda, Ranchi, said she had stopped letting him touch her smartphone. Mother of a student of Sarala Birla school said she switched off her handset as soon as she reached home from work.
But, all these are stopgap measures that may or may not work unless children can be convinced against taking unwarranted risks.
For starters, Blue Whale is not a downloadable game, application or software that can be easily blocked. It is a social media phenomenon, accessible via networks of secretive groups. The game, which involves 50 tasks over 50 days and culminates in suicide, is mainly played on social media apps such as Instagram, online gaming groups and message boards, say cyber experts.
Teenagers actively searching for the game are also targeted by curators or administrators. Once contact is made, the player and the curator switch to a private chat mode. One cannot filter the Blue Whale game using an anti-virus. Children can only be told to avoid it.
On Sunday, Sarla Birla school had issued an advisory to parents, asking them to block unwanted access to gadgets and social media sites at home.
"I was alarmed when I realised my students knew more about this game - like who invented it and how it is played - than they knew about the blue whale (marine species). So, we convened the special meeting," principal Paramjeet said.
So, how must parents fight this frightening phenomenon?
"Talk to your child. Pay attention to what they have to say. Be there for them physically and emotionally. Engage them in outdoor activities that they like. In short, wean them away from adverse effects of the Internet," the principal said, adding that parents had also been advised restricted gadget use at home.
"At school level, we have regular counselling sessions. We have now asked teachers to be alert and report about risky behaviour. At home, use of basic phones rather than smartphones must be promoted," she maintained.
St Xavier's principal Ajit Xess agreed and said they were taking special classes (at least once a week) on the good, bad and ugly aspects of the Internet.
"We host sessions on cyber crimes where experts speak to students and answer their queries. We also organise counselling on online behaviour," Xess said.
On dos and don'ts for parents, he said they prescribe two things. "First, install a computer with Internet in common area instead of a private room. Second, monitor mobile phones that you let your children use and answer messages/calls that come yourself."
A senior teacher of JVM-Shyamali said a child could not be controlled by force. "So, the effective solution is talking to them like a friend," he said.
Neuro-psychiatrist Dr Siddharth Sinha agreed that parents must develop a bond beyond parenting. "Parents are often hesitant to talk to children, especially adolescents, about important things in life. Don't infringe on their privacy. Share your concerns about them with them," he stressed.
How else can the Blue Whale threat be contained? Tell [email protected]