Russia has the third-highest number of child suicides in the world. For the past decade, around 1,500 teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19 take their own lives each year, which is three times the world average—and that’s not even when you take the number of suicides registered as accidental deaths into account. In the past, UNICEF reports have pointed toward disadvantaged family situations as the root cause of these figures, but many parents in Russia are pointing the finger at a much larger and harder-to-control source: the internet.
Over the past year, journalists, politicians, and families have been claiming that Russia’s internet culture is promoting youth suicide. Specifically, they lay the blame on so-called “Groups of Death”—closed, cult-like communities that sprout on VKontakte (VK), the Russian version of Facebook. One of the most infamous cliques was called f57, a VK group for members to share videos and memes with a touch of the psychedelic.
The source of this hysteria started with a tragedy. On Nov. 23 2015, one of the f57 group’s commenters, a 16-year-old Siberian girl called Rina Palenkova, laid herself in front of a train. A picture of Rina’s body went viral. Rumors spread throughout VK that Rina had watched a video posted in f57 which contained hidden sounds that drove her to suicide. Other users suggested that f57 was a murderous cult. As the speculation mounted, more and more attention was being drawn to the f57 group. Teens were intrigued. And they began to subscribe.
Egged on by their sudden infamy, the f57 figureheads became increasingly perverse. They posted videos of dismemberment and pictures depicting cut wrists. Eventually, VK moderators were called to action, and f57 was blocked.
But this didn’t stem the problem, and more self-harm cults based off f57’s model began to surface. Two popular ones, #f57источник and f57terminal5751, would post videos and photos of suicides and pictures of obscure symbols. The administrators would write things like “This is only the beginning” and “Dedication to mass suicide.” One moderator wrote his new subscribers messages: “Go follow Rina”, and then, “Jump!”
On April 16 2016, an article titled “Группы смерти” (which translates to “Groups of Death”) was published the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. “Every day, a child receives their dose of intoxication from these internet landfills,” wrote the article’s author, journalist Galina Mursalieva. She drew attention to the social-network suicide cults that were giving school children cryptic riddles and assigning “death dates” to those who were successful in solving them. The article claimed that at least 80 children, manipulated into playing the games, committed suicide on their designated dates; Mursalieva even claimed that four girls died on the same day last December, all by jumping from high buildings.
Adults began to take notice, and newspapers and local communities became awash with the talk of the hidden internet groups that were killing their children. As a result, politicians were forced into action.
Russian senator Anton Belyakov submitted a draft law to the federal parliament that, among other things, proposed a five-to-eight-year prison sentence and fine for people who distribute “information that forms an attractive perception of suicide.” In the explanatory note, which practically paraphrases snippets of Mursalieva’s article, Belyakov claims that the internet is the main reason that Russia recorded the most suicides of any European country in 2013.
“Fines wouldn’t work,” says Evgeny Lyubov, the chief of the suicidology department at the Moscow Scientific Institute of Psychiatry. “A message about the intention to commit suicide is usually a cry for help. It is necessary to develop anti-suicidal sites to contrast these suicidal “Groups of Death.”
Lyubov may say that villainizing the internet isn’t the answer, but many politicians are still desperately calling for more restrictions on social media, and they are positively mute when it comes to self-help groups. For example, earlier this year “Children 404,” which is Russia’s online—and only—support forum for LGBT adolescents, was found guilty of violating the “gay propaganda” law and threatened with closure. This law, which forbids spreading “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors,” was passed in 2013 and written by politician Yelena Mizulina.
“The law completely paralyzes the ways to work with homophobia among adolescents and almost any ways to support and protect someone who is a victim of bullying,” says child psychologist Ludmila Petranovskaya. Mizulina is one of the most vocal in the hate speeches against the VK youth groups, and has proposed to punish the owners of any social network that contains suicidal content.
However, after hasty outcry and politician bolstering, it was revealed that Mursalieva had made mistakes. Follow-ups exposed that much of her article was embellished, and in some portions it was entirely inaccurate. When questioned, she couldn’t verify the source of where she had pulled the number of 80 children she claimed had committed suicide, and she didn’t even know the names of the groups in which the deceased adolescent girls she profiled were allegedly members.
Kremlin criticizer Meduza accused Mursalieva of “building false evidence” and assuming “the relationship between internet and suicide” from the beginning. These criticisms were repeated by other journalists and medical experts. But the first domino had already been toppled, and the inaccuracies of Mursalieva’s report didn’t seem to bother certain lawmakers, who still plowed ahead to condemn the internet in the name of child protection.
Protection without basis is akin to over-protection—and control is a state-of-being that Russians know all too well. In her column for “Project Spektrum,” Petranovskaya analyzed the consequences of Mursalieva’s article—or “black magic with subsequent exposure”, as she called it. She offered a counter-narrative by advising well-intentioned parents to resist tracking their children’s cell-phones or reading their messages on social media.
“We can protect our children from anything, but not from themselves, unless we are willing to give them a lobotomy for their safety,” she says. “I think it is the awareness of this truth is the basis for the horror, into which the Novaya Gazeta article plunged parents. We have to learn to live with it if we want our children to live.”
Russia undoubtedly has a devastating problem that it needs to solve. The internet may partly be to blame, yes—but so are many other factors, such as “parental alcoholism, conflicts in the family, and abusive treatment,” as outlined in UNICEF’s initial report on Russia’s child suicide mortality rate. Through over-censoring the place where many teenagers gather for support, this issue may spiral even further out of control.
Petranovskaya ends her article by quoting the Polish children’s author Janusz Korczak: “We are so afraid that the child will be taken from us by death, that we take away his life.”