By Fr. Joshan Rodrigues –
Speaking of whales, the first thing that comes to mind is the Prophet Jonah in the Old Testament who was supposedly swallowed by a whale and lay in its belly for three days before being spat out on dry land (the biblical account doesn’t actually say ‘whale’ but a ‘large fish’). Of course, the story is supposed to be more symbolical rather than literal, with Jesus referring to this story later in the New Testament as a sign of his own descent into death and subsequent resurrection.
The Blue Whale controversy has once again brought to the fore, the debate on whether children and adolescents should have unrestricted access to smartphones and the internet; or rather how much is ok.
The Blue Whale game or Blue Whale Challenge is believed to be a suicide game wherein a participant is given a task to complete daily — for a period of 50 days — the final of which is the participant committing suicide. Participants are expected to share photos of the challenges/tasks completed by them. The Blue Whale suicide game goes by many names including ‘A Silent House,’ ‘A Sea Of Whales’ and ‘Wake Me Up At 4:20am.’ It is played primarily via the website VKontakte, which is a popular social network in Russia. It gets its name from a common belief that blue whales voluntarily beach themselves in order to end their own lives (though this too is highly debated).
These daily tasks start off easy — such as listening to certain genres of music, waking up at odd hours, watching a horror movie, among others, and then slowly escalate to carving out shapes on one’s skin, self-mutilation and eventually suicide. A few cases have been reported in India, though there is no confirmation that these are genuinely connected with the Blue Whale challenge. Governments at the local level and many schools have now begun awareness programmes to warn children about the dangers that such games bring.
Coming back to my point. The widespread availability of the internet has brought with it a number of challenges. The advent of the internet had been heralded as the door to a more informed and educated humanity. But the sober truth after almost two decades of the internet is that it has made us more confused and dependent. I accept the benefits it has brought, but the benefits have been balanced out by the negative impact. Like with any another technology, the secret lies in monitoring and educating about their proper use.
I am of the firm view that children do not have a ‘right’ to a cellphone; even teenagers. However, this does not mean that parents refuse them one. Having a cell phone has become an integral part of kids and adolescents keeping in touch with their peers and being included in social circles. Being deprived of this access to the digital world may hurt them emotionally and create a feeling of being left out. By all means, give them one (but a high-end smartphone which costs a month’s salary of both parents combined is definitely not needed).
Secondly, parents have a right to joint access to their children’s phones. It is advisable to check your kid’s smartphones from time to time to check that there’s nothing amiss. If you do find something objectionable, a good strategy would be to talk it out with them and explain the dangers rather than just confiscating the phone. Create a relationship of trust, in which your kids feel comfortable talking to you when they are in difficulty. Taking away their phone could be counter-productive in most cases.
Have time curfews in place when your kids and teenagers are not allowed to use their phone. When we were kids, we had fixed times for watching the television. We did not have unrestricted access. Something similar is required for cellphones today. The Blue Whale game for instance is played in the late hours of the night. Nothing good ever happens under the cover of darkness. Letting your kids sleep with their cellphones should be a strict no-no. Even if they are not involved in any negative behaviour online, your teenagers are bound to stay awake late into the night browsing through various social media apps like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. Social media and messaging apps are known to have a hypnotic effect on users pretty much like slot machines in casinos. You can spend hours on it and lose track of time completely. I know because I’ve been there myself. Sleep deprivation leads to other ill-effects and you will see your children being less productive during the day.
It is well-known that Steve Jobs himself limited the amount of time his own kids spent on Apple devices. While the whole world was hooked to the iPod, his own kids hadn’t even used it. Journalist Nick Bilton writing in the New York Times, recalled how the Jobs household was low on technology even though Steve was selling his products to the world as the solution to every problem. As a parent, he was concerned about the long-term effects of kids spending hours on touch-screen technology. Obviously, he had two different opinions about his own products as a business man and a parent. I’ve known about doctors too who don’t give their own children the medicines that they would prescribe to you.
So having a proactive and mediated approach to technology is the answer to any problems like the Blue Whale challenge. There is something new coming up every day in the digital world. Responding to every problem individually is not the solution. Teaching our kids how to use technology properly is.
On a final note, a student in Mumbai asks why can’t they make games where you are required to do 50 positive things instead? Well, that’s very insightful. Sounds like an app on the lines of a Lenten Calendar, where users could be asked to do one act of outreach each day, beginning with small tasks and progressively building up towards bigger actions in their local community. Let’s call it the White Rabbit Challenge! If there are any game or app developers out there listening, here’s your next big thing.
Fr Joshan Rodrigues is a Catholic Priest of the Archdiocese of Bombay, India. He is currently studying Institutional and Church Communications at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome. Catholicism is for him a ‘Journey of Discovery’, a reality that permeates existence, as light causes day. His great loves are faith enquiry, travel, books, movies and pop culture. Here he tries to look at all things ‘life’ from a Catholic perspective. Also do read his blog: Musings in Catholic Land