New surge of "death groups" in social networks: how to protect children and teenagers?


New surge of "death groups" in social networks: how to protect children and teenagers?

At the beginning of August, a new episode of mass distribution of so-called "death squads" began in Ukraine - public places where children and teenagers are manipulated to harm themselves and even commit suicide. Numerous appeals in this regard were recorded, in particular, on the National Hotline for Children and Youth, whose work is provided by the Public Organization "La Strada-Ukraine".

What can parents do to protect their children? They tell Alyona Kryvulyak, coordinator of the National Hotline for Children and Youth, i Maryna Legenka, vice-president and lawyer of the NGO "La Strada-Ukraine".


A few years ago in the CIS countries, in particular in Ukraine, there was already a similar phenomenon - groups on social networks "Blue Whale", "Quiet House", "Wake me up at 4:20" and others gained mass popularity among teenagers. The curators of these groups attracted children in public, manipulated and incited them to engage in self-harm - usually to carve suicidal symbols on the skin, and consistently pushed them to commit suicide (unfortunately, a number of such cases occurred).

Danger has returned. Since the beginning of August, consultants of the National Hotline for Children and Youth of the NGO "La Strada-Ukraine" have been receiving numerous requests regarding such groups. 

They spread quickly and involve tens of thousands of children.

Where do new "death groups" appear and how to recognize them?

Alyona Kryvulyak: During the last surge in popularity, "death groups" spread on the Russian social network VKontakte, which was banned in Ukraine and is no longer popular among Ukrainian teenagers. Currently, such publics are created primarily in Telegram and TikTok social networks. Instagram and Facebook monitor more closely and promptly block such content. Therefore, creating such publics in these social networks has minimal risk.

The "death squads" now proliferating share a common name. We deliberately do not name it for security reasons, so as not to attract new participants involuntarily. And we urge the mass media to communicate carefully about this issue, so as not to cause harm. After all, children also have access to adult content. However, it is important for parents whose children already use the Internet to be aware of this.

Maryna Legenka: Of course, creating such groups is illegal. After all, their content at least harms the mental and psychological state of children, and in the worst case, it is about leading to suicide.

Who runs the "death squads"?

Alyona Kryvulyak: All communication in these groups is conducted in Russian. Previously, surges in their distribution in Ukraine occurred during periods of active phases of the war in Donbas. Russian aggression against Ukraine has signs of genocide (in particular, this was discussed in our articles about the sexual crimes of the Russian occupiers). And children are the most valuable for Ukraine and, at the same time, a vulnerable category. These groups were launched en masse around the same time. And there are reasons to believe that one of their goals is to harm Ukrainian children in this way: through calls for suicide of the future of the Ukrainian nation.

Maryna Legenka: In such groups there are customers and performers. Customers usually have ideological beliefs about harming children specifically in Ukraine. And performers receive money for engaging children and giving them tasks.  

Which children are at risk?

Alyona Kryvulyak: Usually, participants in dangerous groups are children and teenagers who do not receive support and love from their families. For example, if violence is committed against them or adults do not pay enough attention. Or the child or teenager is experiencing other difficult situations - bullying, sexting or other problems with peers. 

Children who have experienced trauma are also at risk. It can be sexual violence or trauma from war. 

It should be noted separately that such groups are often joined by children and adolescents who need psychological or psychiatric help, but adults refuse them this.

We know of at least 20 cases of Ukrainian children participating in "death squads", most of them are children who were directly affected by the war: they lived in a zone where active hostilities are taking place or in temporarily occupied territories, lost relatives or friends due to military actions However, in reality, any child who has access to the Internet can join such a group. 

It is important that not all children immediately plan suicide - at first they may be driven by curiosity or doubts. However, curators, through manipulation and threats, can lead to such a decision.

What signs indicate that a child is in the "group of death"?

Alyona Kryvulyak: For the most part, such groups are open - anyone can join. Children submit an application for joining a group - and after approval by the moderator, they become members of such groups. Information about groups is distributed by children and teenagers themselves, in particular, "invite 10 friends to the group" may be the first task. Also, curators can "recruit" participants for the group via the Internet - for example, write comments under the content posted by the child or in personal messages. 

Participants receive tasks from curators - for example, a child must make cuts on his body (slogans or symbols) and send a photo for confirmation. Curators can also extract personal data from children in order to use it for blackmail - they say that if they refuse to complete the task, they will harm the family, because they know the address. Of course, this is manipulation! However, gullible and vulnerable children may believe such threats and hurt themselves out of desperation. 

Through manipulation and intimidation, children are consistently led to think that they should commit suicide. 

Signs that the child has fallen into the "group of death" can be traces of selfharm (usually cuts) on the hands, feet, and other parts of the body. In the summer, it should be noted if children wear covered clothing despite the heat, and even go to bed in such a way, being in a relatively safe region where there is no fighting going on.

Regarding behavior, children can become more closed, nervous, sad, avoid communication with parents and peers.

How to protect children from participating in "death squads"?

Alyona Kryvulyak: 

Do not take gadgets by force. This is the worst thing that parents can do - to take away the gadget. This is not only a violation of the child's personal boundaries, but also leads to the fact that the child closes in on himself even more. Remember, it is still impossible to limit access to gadgets - you can take a laptop, a friend's or girlfriend's phone or buy an inexpensive phone and hide it.  

If the child, on his own initiative, wants to talk about "death groups" - do not be afraid and do not avoid the conversation. Talk about it. Ask what the child thinks - why are such groups created and why are they harmful?

The child may not know about such groups. In this case, you should communicate carefully - you should not immediately tell about the names of such publics and how to find them, so as not to accidentally arouse interest. 

If the child is already a member of the "death group" - support and help. You can't shout, devalue, condemn, intimidate - this will only make things worse and may even push you to commit suicide. Instead, try carefully, through support and love, to understand why the child even had such an idea to join the "group of death" and how to help him in the future. 

For example, we know of a case where a girl who lost her military father in the war and has no contact with her mother became a member of such a group. According to her logic, due to suicide, she can end up next to her father, because here she lost protection and security. In this case, we worked to debunk the idea that suicide can be a way out - because "after life" may not be anything. Instead, they looked for new supports and people to whom they can turn for support. If the child is in danger, it can be, in particular, the Service for Children and Family Affairs.    

Communicate with children. Yes, during a full-scale war, it is difficult for adults psychologically and economically. However, it is not easier for children. They need their parents to spend time with them every day. Have dinner together, walk in the park with ice cream (if the security situation allows), arrange meetings for tea before bed, take an interest in the child's life, his problems and needs. Talk about school life, love, pets. Talk about anything, but be sure to talk.  

Talk about the value of life. That saving life, especially now, during a full-scale war, is the most valuable thing that every Ukrainian man and woman can do. The child should receive the most important message: difficulties exist and, unfortunately, always will. But a person has the ability to overcome anything, and you have adults on whom you can always rely. No problem is worth your precious life.

Talk about safety rules in social networks. Especially now, when an information war is being waged against Ukraine. You can take an online course on information hygiene together with your child - this will further bring you closer and help you talk about risks on the Internet.

Seek professional help. You can call our National Hotline for children and youth 24 hours a day - not only for children, but also for parents who want to help but don't know what to do in a certain situation. 

Also, if necessary, you should find a psychologist, psychotherapist or psychiatrist. We often hear from children that parents are against such a decision, devalue children's problems, or are confident that they will manage on their own. 

Believe me: even the best parents cannot cure a child, for example, from depression, without medication and psychotherapy. After all, we are talking about changes on both the psychological and physical level. Therefore, if necessary, organize the professional help of psychologists, psychotherapists and psychiatrists. And you should forget about the myths about punitive psychiatry - it has not existed in Ukraine for a long time. And antidepressants are not scary when they are really indicated and help to improve the condition of children. This help is confidential, and there is no need to fear judgment or ridicule from peers - children are now more aware of mental health than older generations. 

Take care of your own psychological state. If you feel that you lack the resources to communicate with your child or even notice outbursts of aggression behind you, do not neglect the opportunity to help yourself, and therefore the child. Contact a psychologist and learn to manage your emotional state.

What should a child do when a friend becomes a member of "death squads"?

Staying with a friend or girlfriend, because the feeling of loneliness may be the reason why they ended up in these groups in the first place. Also, if you have a trusting relationship with your parents, you can tell them about it - and they, as adults, will find a way to help with the problem. If a friend or girlfriend has parents who treat the child adequately - for example, they do not commit violence and generally try to support, you can contact them directly. Tell what you know about the participation of a friend in a group with dangerous content, ask to pay attention to it and help.

How can society prevent the spread of "death squads"?

Maryna Legenka: If you come across such content, you should complain about it (any social network has such a function), and the groups will be blocked. 

The investigation of the activities of such groups and related crimes is carried out by law enforcement agencies - the National Police of Ukraine, in particular - the Cyber Police Department, as well as the Juvenile Police, since it is about children. It is to such institutions that citizens should be notified if a dangerous group is identified - for example, using a special form on the website Cyber police

Once notified, these institutions must investigate and block groups with harmful content. And if their activities have already led to a suicide attempt or the fact of suicide, there is a criminal prosecution of persons who incited children to commit suicide (punishable by deprivation of liberty for a term of seven to ten years, according to Article 120 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine). 

There are examples when persons guilty of inducing suicide through groups on the Internet were punished by law. However, there are currently known cases when such persons are abroad, in the Russian Federation - and it will be more difficult to bring them to justice. Usually, in such cases, the investigation takes place in cooperation with the law enforcement agencies of the two states, which is impossible in a state of war. 

Alyona Kryvulyak: If you work in an educational, volunteer or community organization, it is very useful to conduct information hygiene activities for parents and children.

And in general, the best prevention is the formation of trust and warm relations with children. There can never be too many words of love and support - unfortunately, this is usually not enough in children's lives. Children who contact the National Helpline for Children and Young People often talk about this. For example, one girl said that she remembers the exact date when her mother last told her "I love you". That was a few years ago. Children who feel lonely are more likely to join harmful groups, both online and offline. On the other hand, when the family is an island of safety, such risks still exist, but they are much lower.

I prepared the text
Kateryna Majevska