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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Librarians and Blue Whales

Kind Reader sent in a remarkable exchange from something called the “ALA Think Tank,” which is apparently neither a think tank nor affiliated with the ALA, but librarians are a wacky bunch.

At the risk of making people sad about the current state of the world, the topic is once again suicide and libraries.

The original poster is very concerned about the latest dangerous trend for teens that hardly exists outside the imagination of the easily panicked and the creators of clickbait.

The Blue Whale Challenge was started in Russia by a man wanting to manipulate teen girls into committing suicide. He has been arrested and has confessed.

It is not a hoax.

If you haven’t heard of the Blue Whale Challenge, it’s another in a long line of supposed dangers to or from teens that usually follow the same pattern: 1) some teen does something bad (murder, assault, suicide, etc.), 2) someone else alleges that the bad thing is caused by some larger force (satanism, “knockout game,” blue whales, etc.), 3) multiple news outlets “report” on the exact same story over and over making it look like this is a ubiquitous problems, and 4) the gullible spread the story over social media ad infinitum as if it’s a verified trend.

Several librarians responded that propagating this nonsense wasn’t helping anyone deal with actual problems that teenagers might have or their desires to commit suicide, although they didn’t put it quite like that.

One even helpfully posted the link to the Snopes article on the subject, which should be all that librarians need to know. Snopes conclusion: the Blue Whale Challenge is “unproven.” Everyone knows that Snopes is just a liberal conspiracy anyway.

But not all the librarians. For example, one opined, “I’m not saying this ‘game’ is real or not but I do think we need to be educated on the possibility it could be.”

Do we really? Someone also helpfully posted a link to actual data, which is the kind of thing librarians should rely on more than scary news articles to understand reality. In 2015, suicide was the third leading cause of death for Americans age 10-14, with 409 deaths, and the second leading cause of death for Americans aged 15-24, with 5,491 deaths.

Those figures are small compared to deaths from heart disease and cancer, but still pretty serious. Do we really need to know about the dubious Blue Whale Challenge to be concerned with teen suicide?

Even armed with real data one always has to be wary of the news media’s tendency to spin things in the worst possible way to get clicks. For example, there’s this gem: Youth suicide rates are rising. School and the Internet may be to blame. If you don’t look past the headline for that, you might not discover that “A new study found that children’s hospital admissions of patients 5 to 17 years old for such thoughts or actions more than doubled from 2008 to 2015.” So, not the suicide rate.

And while “school and the internet may be to blame,” of course they may also not be to blame. Crazy how that works.

You might actually believe that suicide rates have increased, just like you might believe the Blue Whale Challenge is killing teens, or that America was at one point recently in the middle of a Zika virus epidemic, or that the “knockout game” was endangering the lives of innocent white people everywhere. You might even be right. You just wouldn’t have evidence on your side.

Like the story on the San Jose Library renovating to prevent suicides, this is a story that requires some clear thinking that isn’t always there.

As Kind Reader wrote, “the OP is indeed falling victim to a type of hysteria and is not exhibiting the critical thinking skills our profession should have. Yes, teen suicide is a problem but the ‘blue whale game’ is like so many hysterias before it a way for people to not accept that their loved ones make painful decisions, that society sucks, that some people have really shitty lives they are escaping, or are just deeply disturbed. You see similar things with hysteria over new drugs or heavy metal. ‘That heavy metal song made my son kill his best friend!’ ‘People are trying to get kids addicted to LSD by putting it on cartoons!’”

Kind Reader doesn’t sugarcoat things.

Librarians, perhaps especially those who work with teens, should be aware of actual problems.

Instead of it being important that librarians or anyone else educate themselves about the dubious Blue Whale Challenge, it’s important that people who work with teens educate themselves about the potential signs for suicide overall.

Even then, though, it’s just not possible to detect and stop them all. Librarians might help a few people, and that’s great.

But as with homelessness, drug overdoses, and every other negative social indicator, there’s not going to be much that librarians can do about such problems except educate themselves and hope for the best. It’s their job to be librarians, not solve all social problems.

Educating myself about the Blue Whale Challenge showed me that it was just a waste of time better spent learning real facts about suicide. If it’s not a hoax, it might as well be one.


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  1. anonymous coward says:

    Count me among the number (very small number) who believe that 6000 suicides per year out of 120 million or so is simply a natural number. That’s 0.005% of the population…

    While each of the 6,000 is a tragedy in and of itself, when we look at the forest, instead of the trees, it’s just may be what is.

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