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 Table of Contents  
Year : 2019  |  Volume : 35  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 231-237

It is a rumour-panic: A sociopsychological case-study of the media-spread of the “Blue whale” suicide game and the responses to it in India

Department of Psychiatry, Government Medical College, Kollam, Kerala, India

Date of Submission23-Nov-2018
Date of Decision18-Jan-2019
Date of Acceptance26-Apr-2019
Date of Web Publication15-Nov-2019

Correspondence Address:
Dr. G S Ramkumar
Department of Psychiatry, Government Medical College, Kollam - 691 574, Kerala
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/ijsp.ijsp_103_18

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A rumour about an internet-based “Blue Whale” suicide game has spread across the globe and teenager suicides attributed to it have been reported from many countries. Beginning on July 31, 2017, many cases were reported from India, triggering much public alarm. Based on a theory of rumour panic, this article is an exploration of its local spread in India by examining the media reports connected with it. The psycho-social responses from professionals are elaborated. Key observations are: Blue Whale in India was a perceived threat, the social responses to it were mediated by a rumour-panic and individual behavioral responses to it had features of imitative contagion and wrongful attribution. The media played as the major vehicle for the spread of the rumor, and there were iatrogenic effects in the professional responses to it. The implication for professionals and authority figures with media presence is to diligently fact check before risk communication. Media personnel need to adhere to guidelines on suicide reporting to avoid harm from reportage per se.

Keywords: Collective anxiety, imitative contagion, media, rumour-panic, suicide

How to cite this article:
Ramkumar G S, Sadath A. It is a rumour-panic: A sociopsychological case-study of the media-spread of the “Blue whale” suicide game and the responses to it in India. Indian J Soc Psychiatry 2019;35:231-7

How to cite this URL:
Ramkumar G S, Sadath A. It is a rumour-panic: A sociopsychological case-study of the media-spread of the “Blue whale” suicide game and the responses to it in India. Indian J Soc Psychiatry [serial online] 2019 [cited 2022 Aug 16];35:231-7. Available from: https://www.indjsp.org/text.asp?2019/35/4/231/271094

  Introduction Top

Widely rumoured as a danger that targets innocent teenaged players, the Internet-based “Blue Whale game,” has received much media attention across the globe. The game, as reported, is in the form of a challenge wherein the player is assigned a series of tasks over a period of several days by an administrator, with the final winning task requiring the player to commit suicide.

Beginning in Russia in May 2016, teenager suicides attributed to the game have been reported in the media from many countries. However, as neither the existence of the game nor its link to any of the reported suicides could be verified by any of the online fact checking agencies (e.g., www.snopes.com), it has been called a “sensationalized fake news story” (www.saferinternet.org.uk), and an “urban legend” (Bloomberg View, April 25, 2017). Nevertheless, correspondence, mainly from Asian countries, as letters to scholarly journals have raised concern by framing it as a real problem.[1],[2],[3],[4],[5] A study from southern India has even measured the perceptions of first responders in the medical profession about the “Blue Whale Challenge.”[6]

The first incident reported from India was the suicide of a teenaged boy whose friends alleged that his death was due to the suicide game (Times of India Mumbai Ed, July 31, 2017). The index case spurred much public concern, the matter was raised in the legislative assembly, and an inquiry was declared by the Chief Minister of the state. An MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) was quoted as follows “The incident is a warning. The government should initiate steps to stop such suicides. It is a global phenomenon, and the police must find out who was his master who compelled him to take such a drastic step” (Times of India, August 1, 2017).

A deluge of reports on cases from other parts of the country soon followed, creating much frenzy, that an international media outlet remarked that it “has set off near panic in the country” (BBC NEWS, September 19, 2017). Despite skepticism expressed in sections of the media, the dominant media and public discourse framed it as a real problem. This study is an exploration of the specifics of that discourse in the media, the sociopsychological processes that formed the background, and the psychosocial responses that it engendered.

  Methods Top

We explore the unfolding of the story of the Blue Whale game and the responses to it in India as it appeared in media reports. The sociopsychological theory of rumour-panic by Bartholomew and Victor[7] is used to explain the genesis of collective anxiety around the idea of the Blue Whale game in India. Psychosocial responses to the “threat” from the experts and the role played by media is elaborated as these two agents play a significant role in shaping responses to environmental incidents in general – real or imaginary.[8]

The theory holds that collective anxiety is a social phenomenon which is induced by a shared belief in a threat rumour. When such a belief in an imminent threat spreads wide enough, it creates a consensual definition of the situation, intensifying fear, and leading to distorted perceptions and reactions at the individual level. The conceptual frame of collective anxiety is envisaged as an improvement on alternate frames such as “mass psychogenic illness” or “mass hysteria,” all of which are used to explain phenomena of a collective response.[7] In an earlier article, Bartholomew[9] argues that incidents, that are associated with widespread community anxiety and characterized only by the rapid spread of false rumors and beliefs – in the absence of any illness symptoms or conversion reactions – should be classified not under epidemic hysteria, rather they should be called using the terminology of “collective” or “mass delusion” to indicate a “spontaneous, temporary spread of false beliefs in a given population.”

Bartholomew and Victor[7] used newspaper reports about an incident to explain how collective anxiety developed around a threat rumour through a three-staged process. In this report, we follow the same method of looking at newspaper reports connected with the Blue Whale game in India and borrow the same stages in our exploration of the events in Kerala, the southern state of India.

Events in Kerala, the southern state of India

The events summarized here are based on a systematic search of all reports that appeared in two vernacular newspapers with most circulation in Kerala – Malayala Manorama and Mathrubhumi.

Articles were retrieved from the website of the papers by keyword search and also by a hand search of newspapers. About 40 articles in the website of each of the newspapers could be traced. A few articles from other newspapers, social media, and television are also included as supportive data. Quotes and article titles from the vernacular are translated.

“Initial stage of alarmist press coverage”

This stage is characterized as the mass media's sensationalized reporting of initial claims, by amplifying retrospective interpretations of events, which are offered by people soon after an episode starts. People then go on to redefine ambiguous events and circumstances as influenced by the threat – here, in this case, as due to an online game.

The first report about an actual event from Kerala appeared on August 3rd in Malayala Manorama. It was titled “Controversial Game in Kerala too, Police in Pursuit,” the subheading being “the game has been downloaded over 2000 times as per the police.” The report, which had no attributable authorship raised the suspicion that four children who went to the beach could have been influenced by the game into performing a 'task', as their parents on checking their mobile phones found that they were playing the “deadly game.” This report is supplemented on the same day by an article on the editorial page by a psychiatrist titled “Killer Cyber Games.” The open editorial while acknowledging that the game's influence on the reported suicide in Mumbai was only being investigated, in a cautionary overdrive about real online perils, forewarns parents of children that “tomorrow your own child while casually engaging with the internet may get ensnared in such traps.”

On the next day, Mathrubhumi (August 4th) also publishes in the same pattern, a report titled “School children in Kerala too onto daring bloody game” and an open editorial by a cyber-expert titled “Online Deadly Games.” The first report puts spotlight on a few high school teens who had cut marks and names carved on their arms and speculates the possible influence by the game. The print report is accompanied by a color photograph of a teen's forearm with cut marks and name and is reported as written with a blade. The cyber expert in his article elaborates the sinister methodologies of the game administrator: “The aim of this game is to slowly and steadily lead children between 10 and 14 years to suicide. By the 15th day, their young mind would be set for suicide.”

“The stage of escalating alarmist press reports”

This stage as originally defined is characterized by more reports about the threat wherein authorities are quoted talking about the situation as threating and the community as being confronted with a real danger.

One report (The Hindu, August 5, 2017) on an advisory issued by the police department enumerates the tasks of the game and refers to it as “extremely dangerous” and claimed that there were “several addicts among adolescents.” Parents were instructed to “remove” such games from their computers and smartphones.

As had happened in the index case at Mumbai, the matter was soon raised in the legislative assembly of Kerala State, and the Government decided to submit a request before the Central government of India to “officially block the online game.” (Times of India Kochi Ed, August 10, 2017). Facebook remarks by the Chief Minister of the state were: “the Blue Whale Game is a challenge to the whole society,” and the game should be banned all over India “so that we can save precious lives.” A government health-care institution issues a press release which elaborates on the specifics of the game, how children get trapped, and the psychology behind such games and announces counseling services to support the victims (Malayala Manorama. August 13, 2017).

Regional television news channels soon get involved with breaking news on Blue Whale victims in Kerala. The following scrolls were used: “Killer Games Gets ItsFirst Prey in Kerala;” “16-year-old Die after Playing Blue Whale, Says Mother;” “Proof That the Boy had completed the Blue Whale Tasks;” and “One More Blue Whale Death in Kerala” (Manorama news channel). Mothers of two victims give verbal testimony on television. These reports were followed by a prime-time panel discussion with sensationalized visuals and audio as backdrop. Based on these reports of suicides, the Child Rights Commission of the state registers a case. A report on how Kerala was topping in online keyword searches in Google about the game also came in the vernacular newspaper (Malayala Manorama August 18, 2017).

“The skeptical stage”

The third stage, as originally defined is characterized by a sudden shift in claims by press and institutions of social control.

However, in this case, as early as the initial phase of escalating reportage itself, the story about the game being downloaded was debunked – “The report claiming 2000 downloads is a hoax as the police have not confirmed any such cases till date” (Times Of India, August 5, 2017). Skeptic reports questioning the veracity of the threat soon appear in the social media sites which also used trolls to satirize the game (Mathrubhumi, August 9, 2017). By August 18, most major print newspapers report a statement by a senior Inspector General of police that the Blue Whale game could not be traced in Kerala (“No game called Blue Whale: Kochi's Cyberdome chief.” Times of India. Kochi Ed). He declares that the forensic tests of the electronic devices of the deceased did not reveal any evidence of the game and the symptoms mistaken as signs of teens' participation in the game were those of depression and suicidal tendencies. The chief of police was also quoted in the report as “Blue Whale was not a game, but a set of stupid instructions issued by some system administer” and a digital security expert called it “fake news.”

A case under IT act was charged against a youth who faked on Facebook that he was playing the game by uploading pictures of cut marks in the arm (Mathrubhumi August 19, 2017). More skeptic articles continue to get published in main newspapers (“Those who believe in the blue whale game should certainly read this.” Mathrubhumi, August 22, 2017). By September, doctors observe that there is a certain “paranoia” about the game in the state which can be counterproductive (Times of India. Kochi Ed September 10, 2017). On September 11, vernacular press reports the debunking of the story about the index case from Mumbai by providing a different explanation: “Not Blue Whale, 14-year-old died because of love failure” (Malayala Manorama). With such reports coming in, public skepticism becomes the new norm and further reporting on the Blue Whale dies out.

Responses and Incidents from other parts of India

We systematically reviewed the Times of India, which is the largest circulation national daily in English in India to take stock of the national level responses and incidents from other parts of the country. Using a keyword search, we could find about 250 articles on its website. About 50 incidents connected with the game were traced, of which 21 were completed suicides; about 27 were attempts of self-harm of which 16 were reported as rescued from the act. Indian media's interest in the sensational game was kindled as early as May 2017, which was 2 months before the index incident was reported from Mumbai – the initial reports were on the international happenings connected with it. Some of the early headlines read as follows: “Beware of the Blue Whale app;” “The truth of “Blue Whale” challenge: A game said to “brainwash” teens into committing suicides;” and “Blue Whale suicide game: Big concern for Dubai parents.”

The suspicion about the involvement of the game in individual cases was mostly raised by the friends and in some cases by parents, relatives, neighbors, and school teachers. Many reports mention the victim as “addicted” to mobile phones/video games. Quotes from two suicide notes which mentioned the game were reported verbatim. Notebook of one of the deceased revealed suicide planning, and it was attributed to the game's influence by a relative. An act of running away from home or making cut marks in the body – sometimes with a drawing of a whale, was reported as a marker of involvement with the game. Hypervigilant teachers picked up many children with these signs.

Many headlines in city edition pages of TOI reported the suicide linkage with the game as fact [Table 1].
Table 1: Headlines in national daily which presented Blue Whale linkage to the suicides and suicide attempts as a fact

Click here to view

Some anecdotes [Table 2] from incidents throw light on the individual's thinking and responses that presume that the game exists.
Table 2: Individual responses in the incidents reported from different parts of country as it appeared in newspaper reports

Click here to view

At the national level, the matter was raised in the upper house of the parliament, the National Child Rights Commission issued an alert, the Central Government held discussions with Google and Facebook representatives on how to tackle the digital threat. High Courts in a few States entertained petitions against the threat and a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) seeking a ban on the game was filed in the Supreme Court of India. During the hearing of the PIL, media prominently reported a remark made by the Supreme Court about the game being a “national problem” (Times of India, October 27, 2017).

However, by late November, the Central Government of India in its response to the Supreme Court of India on the PIL submits that the technical investigation which it undertook “could not establish the involvement of Blue Whale Suicidal game in any of the incidents (of death) reported to them” (The IndianExpress, November 21, 2017) It was also submitted that it was technically not possible to block it as it “operates without a formal application or website or URL.” The investigation had “analyzed Internet activities, device activities, call records, and other social media activity and also interacted with rescued victims associated with these incidents (Times of India, January 3, 2018).

Sociopsychological interpretation

The cause of the rumours

Bartholomew and Victor[7] contented that, it is to authority figures and to the people who are immediately around, that people look up to when faced with an ambiguous situation and their belief in a threat-rumour will gain credibility if these sources give signals that it is real.

In the Blue Whale incidents, the belief in the threat rumour was given authenticity by several authority figures in the community. The initial responses to the threat from such authorities in Kerala were as if it was a reality. The report that it was being “downloaded” thousands of times gave it an existence, however, later that report was debunked. So did the call by the police to “remove” the game from the children's mobile phones. Law enforcement agencies unfortunately have a tendency to err on the side of caution and broadcast warnings which they cannot wait to check, as they feel compelled by a philosophy of “better safe than never” and such actions have resulted in “giving credence to urban legends and hoaxes and unsubstantiated internet chatter” (www.snopes.com). What followed was a further validation of the presence of a risk by experts with media presence and governmental agencies, as more and more reports came in the big circulation newspapers.

This rumour was amplified by the media which acted as the vector of its spread. But what predisposed the local spread of this global rumour is to be speculated. The 21st century is witness to the rapid technological advancements – the internet and mobile smartphones – and this is happening in concurrence with the globalization phenomenon which had started in the last decades of the 20th century. Such concurrent “accelerations” strains the societal level adaptations[10] which can be caught gasping in a constant catch up effort. This lag contributes to the “society in flux,”[11] and its collective anxieties which are manifested in forms of a moral-panic, rumor-panic, or contemporary legends. With prices of smartphones and internet packages reducing drastically in India in recent times, a large number of people, especially the younger generation, become regular users of the internet on their mobile devices, thus feeding a growing moral panic that the young generation is glued on to the small private screens. Such apprehensions had already taken concrete shape in Kerala as there have been reports of the youth being recruited to an international terrorist group through the internet (Times of India, August 1, 2017). In this context, the existence of a sinister online suicide game that targets hapless children becomes the realm of plausibility for the community.

Causes of individual behavioral responses

A widespread rumour creates certain expectancy effects, which can cause distorted perceptions at the individual level based on the individual's level of suggestibility, level of previous anxiety, and disposition to critical thinking.[6]

Wrongful attribution

Wrongful attribution of natural activities of children to the game's influence, by hypervigilant observers can be seen in many reported cases. In an atmosphere of moral panic about new technology, children with mobile devices get easily labeled as “game addicts.” The index case in Mumbai was a case of wrongful attribution by friends and neighbors. Such concerns have been raised by sections of the scholarly community in relation to what an inclusion of “gaming disorder” into disease classification systems can do. They fear that it will trigger “moral panics around the harm of video gaming.”[12]

Rates of mortality due to suicide in India are among the highest in the world, and it is even greater among the younger aged and in the southern parts of the country.[13] Preliminary data also affirm that Non-Suicidal Self Injury (NSSI) is also high in India.[14] With such high background rates, it is no surprise that many of these symptoms received a wrongful attribution to the preoccupation of the moment - a sinister online game. However, as the “skeptic phase” of reportage set in, articles like those written by a psychiatrist that called the Blue Whale a “red herring” – that detracts attention from the real problem of suicide – are published (The Wire, September 10). Counter attributions for the phenomenon of suicides such as that of “oppressive social norms” and “depression” were also provided in news reports by health experts (“Blue Whale Game: A lethal shark called depression.” Times of India, August 17, 2017; “Depression, the real Blue Whale.” The Hindu, September 11, 2017).

Copycat effects

Copycat suicides or Werther effect[15] and copycat NSSI,[16] are imitative behavior influenced by media publicity. Hence, to prevent media included contagion of self-harm behavior, guidelines for reporting suicides have been promulgated in many countries including India.[17] A possible copycat effect and a breach of guidelines on suicide reportage were remarked in the mass media articles written during the event by psychiatrists, one of whom was the first author of this study (“Illusion as news” TheHindu October 1, 2017).

Among teenagers, who presented with cut marks, some had “whale” marks cut in their arms, which were reported as suggesting the performance of “tasks” of the game. As many of these children with cut marks were reported as never used the internet at all or some of them reported as even playing the game “offline,” an imitative contagion of self-injury can only possibly explain that. A case series from Italy of five suspected cases of “Blue Whale” also reveal that all the children were emulating it due to the media exposure to it and all these children had psychosocial vulnerabilities which made them susceptible to such emulative self-harm behavior.[18]

Retrospective interpretation

A false memory or retrospective falsification could be implicated in the case of the two mothers, who claimed on breaking news television in Kerala that their sons were victims of the game — because both these suicides had occurred months before the local spread of the rumour. Alternatively, as these suicides also occurred within the period in which the news about the game was present in international media, it could be part of an imitative contagion, if the deceased were aware about the idea of the suicide game.

Termination of behavioral responses

The public belief in a threat gets altered when alternate definitions are provided by authority figures. In this case, though the initial response from the police was an awareness drive about taking precaution, later there was categorical public rebuttal on the game's nonexistence by senior investigative officers based on the sound investigative approach by the cyber wing of the Kerala police. Police action of pressing charges against people making claims on social media about the playing the game could have had a deterrent effect on others. And with the social and traditional media publishing more skeptic content and satirical treatment of the issue by the troll media, the consensual definition about the threat shifts and further reporting on game induced phenomenon stops.

In this article, we have used the sociopsychological case study approach which relies on information drawn from media reports connected with the incidents. We have tried to fit the unfolding of events into a theoretical framework for the analysis. To reduce the limitations of this approach, the authors have tried to include maximum information through a semi-structured online search, and the first author longitudinally followed up the events as and when it unfolded. The entire bibliography is also made available.

Psychosocial responses in focus

Iatrogenesis: Actions of professionals

The manner of the professional response can have an independent effect on whether an acute behavioral episode will self-limit or spread further – an emergency response can paradoxically escalate an already tense situation.[7] The initial response to the Blue whale in almost all places in India was a knee-jerk awareness campaign without a due fact check. During the episode, medical and other experts with media presence wrote independent articles, participated in television debates or gave their opinion embedded in other articles. In an empirical evaluation of the role of media reports on completed and prevented suicides, it was found that like the articles with sensationalized coverage, articles on suicides carrying expert opinion were also associated with increase in suicide rates.[19] This paradoxical effect was explained by the observation that expert comments were embedded in the otherwise sensationalized reportage–such reports using expert presence to lend legitimacy to their content. Many expert responses in connection with the Blue Whale game as quoted in this article and also as anecdotes in [Table 2], were also of the nature of the mixed message type (sensationalism and expert opinions) – thus potentially having harmful effects. Incidentally, this aspect seems to have been anticipated by one group of people – the internet-based meme generators in Kerala, who declined an offer by the police to involve in the awareness drive during the initial phase of the spread. One administrator commented, “…we advised them [police] against it as people have a tendency to experiment with things which we urge them not to try out” (Times of India, August 20, 2017).

The exercise of listing out the tasks of the game as part of the awareness drive, in effect, provided free advertisement for the game. Pictures depicting cut marks and whale marks, many “photoshoped,” were circulated indiscriminately along with the news articles for sensational illustration. All these could have contributed to an iatrogenic contagion of NSSI.[15] This could well be a peculiar case where an awareness-drive against suicide contributing to a harmful imitative contagion effect on NSSI. The same was succinctly put by a digital literacy website (Netfamilynews.org) that this is “a textbook example of how misinformation about online harm can itself be harmful.” The public health hazard of the contagion effect will also be that real issues of the teenagers who enacts the wave will remain unaddressed as they embrace the maladaptive coping of imitating the publicized “tasks.”

Influence of media

Media reports are inherently biased towards the sensational than the mundane, and by nature, they emphasize risk over-reassurance.[7] The Blue Whale scare was one sensational risk which media could not resist. We have demonstrated how the media coverage through the three stages of reportage about the Blue Whale events in Kerala played a major role in shaping the rumour-panic. The global viral phenomenon of the Blue Whale can, in turn, be traced to hyped reportage with the clickbait headlines, which were used to cash in on the digital attention economy. This essentially draws attention to “inherent bias” with which media work[7] so as to develop a “media literacy” as a shield against it, as recurrent patterns of such reportage continue to occur, the most recent being about the “momo challenge.”

  Conclusion Top

We have described the spread of the idea of Blue Whale game in India as a rumour-panic. An alarmist press coverage, escalated further by knee-jerk mass-media messages from professionals and authority figures gave away strong signals of its existence. This proved to be counterproductive as it produced game-related emulative behavioral responses in individuals, which further fed the news cycle. The specific context in India of the recent penetration of internet and smartphones and the collective anxieties surrounding it provided the background for the spread of the rumour. An imitative contagion of self-injury and suicide could be implicated in this case due to undue publicity accorded to the game in the emergency responses. These iatrogenic effects from professional responses would suggest that, however well-intentioned, hastily taken actions against perceived risks can precipitate harm in itself. As the inherent sensationalist nature of media contributes much to the spread of the rumours, preventive mass-media counter responses need to balance fact-check and risk communication. Media personnel needs to adhere to guidelines on suicide reporting to avoid imitative contagion effects.

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

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  [Table 1], [Table 2]


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