The Horror of Russian Teens’ Social Media Suicide Games

As the United States worries about sensational online murders, there’s an epidemic of deadly online challenges taking the lives of vulnerable young Russians.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

MOSCOW—The Russian ninth-graders, Katia Vlasova and Denis Muravyov liked to post a daily documentary about their lives. The two skinny teens shared their selfies and videos with friends on Russia’s most popular social media network VKontakte, as well as on Instagram and Periscope. They were a couple, Katia and Denis confided to their virtual friends. Then, last May, the high school students escaped from their parents to a house in their village. Somehow they’d found weapons, shooting at their parents and police as they closed in on them, before finally committing suicide.

Russian TV channels, including Rossiya-1, aired the video footage of Denis in front of an open window, saying: “My last moments of life,” before sticking his gun out of the window for another round of shots.

Russian media reported that Denis wounded Katia’s mother in the hip as the woman begged the teens to come out and end the police siege.

Before dying, Katia and Denis posted their goodbye video message on social networks, which were viewed by thousands of other teenagers across Russia.

One of the questions under their posts read: “Where is the video of how they were killed?”

Many doubted that the two children ended their lives voluntarily.

Almost a year later, the repercussions from that moment of adolescent love and death continue to echo on the Russian web, reinforced by the global spread of selfie violence on social media as Facebook Live becomes, too often, Facebook killing, dying, and dead.

From Silicon Valley to the city of Pskov, people are trying to find ways to avoid such tragedies. “We know we need to do better,” one Facebook executive said in a statement after a man named named Steve Stephens shot and killed a stranger, then uploaded the video.

After the tragedy of Katia and Denis, the parents and teachers of Pskov region sat down to discuss whom to blame for the tragedy. Some parents suggested censoring social networks, others banning them.

Then, while Russia was still healing and guessing whether Katia and Denis killed themselves, or if they died from police bullets, there came news about “groups of death” on the VKontakte social network.

The horror games called “Blue Whale,” “f57,” and “Quiet House” involved tens of thousands of people all over Russia and in neighboring Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

The games targeted depressed teenagers online and invited participants to obey the orders of some virtual “curators” for 50 days, leading up to the last day when they were to commit suicide.

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The Novaya Gazeta newspaper counted 130 suicide cases connected to the “Blue Whale” death game alone in 2016.

Earlier this year one of the “Blue Whale” participants in Ukraine, Masha Kotova, wrote to a friend: “After you kill yourself they sell your photos and videos on various closed web pages.” Because of the horror game Kotova said she lived with scars on her body: One of the first “tasks” given to her by the anonymous curator was to cut the outline of a blue whale on her arm with a razor.

At the last stage of the dreadful game some teenagers refuse to obey orders, but then their “virtual curators” tell them that they know their home addresses, and threaten to kill their parents.

To put an end to these murderous manipulations, the administration of Vkontakte froze pages with dangerous hashtags and invited the users to fill a special form for complaints about certain groups in the network.

“Some restrictions, as a part of concrete investigations, are logical, but the censorship of the internet is unacceptable,” Anton Nosik, editor of several Russian online publications, told The Daily Beast.

But Russian officials refused to blame all suicide cases on the internet games. The Russian Interior Ministry published a tragic statistic last month: 710 teenagers committed suicide in the past year in Russia, it reported, and by its count only 1 percent of the cases were the tied in some way to internet use.

Nevertheless, officials concerned about web communities “manipulating children’s minds” have blocked about 5,000 websites containing information about how to commit suicide, the report said.

How could parents protect children from getting involved in life-threating actions online?

Tikhon Dzyadko, a host of RTVI, suggested parents become more aware of their children’s lives. “We need to love our children, talk with them, be friends with them,” Dzyadko told The Daily Beast. “Then if our children get involved in strange stories, they will trust us enough to share the truth.”