Background: Research suggests that direct exposure to suicidal behaviors and acts of self-harm through social media may increase suicidality through imitation and modeling, particularly in more vulnerable populations. One example of a social media phenomenon that demonstrates how self-harming behavior could potentially be propagated is the blue whale challenge. In this challenge, adolescents and young adults are encouraged to engage in self-harm and eventually kill themselves.
Objective: This paper aimed to investigate the way individuals portray the blue whale challenge on social media, with an emphasis on factors that could pose a risk to vulnerable populations.
Methods: We first used a thematic analysis approach to code 60 publicly posted YouTube videos, 1112 comments on those videos, and 150 Twitter posts that explicitly referenced the blue whale challenge. We then deductively coded the YouTube videos based on the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) safe messaging guidelines as a metric for the contagion risk associated with each video.
Results: The thematic analysis revealed that social media users post about the blue whale challenge to raise awareness and discourage participation, express sorrow for the participants, criticize the participants, or describe a relevant experience. The deductive coding of the YouTube videos showed that most of the videos violated at least 50% of the SPRC safe and effective messaging guidelines.
Conclusions: These posts might have the problematic effect of normalizing the blue whale challenge through repeated exposure, modeling, and reinforcement of self-harming and suicidal behaviors, especially among vulnerable populations such as adolescents. More effort is needed to educate social media users and content generators on safe messaging guidelines and factors that encourage versus discourage contagion effects.