Russia panics as social media groups encouraging teen suicides

Saint Petersburg: Chilling online “death groups” on popular social media that egg on teenagers to kill themselves are causing panic in Russia after a string of teen suicides.

Hidden groups on social networking site VK, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, are reportedly controlled by “mentors” who incite their members to take their own lives.

The existence of these groups, highlighted in an investigation by Novaya Gazeta opposition newspaper last year, has rattled parents and sparked heated debate in a country where suicide is largely a taboo subject.

President Vladimir Putin has publicly expressed concern, this month calling for harsher punishments for those convicted of incitement to suicide — a crime that currently carries a prison sentence of up to three years.

Several dozen Russian teenagers out of the total of 130 who committed suicide between November 2015 and April 2016 were pressured by members of “death groups” on VK, who remain in the shadows as they spread a suicide cult, Novaya Gazeta reported.

A “mentor” on one death group, 22-year-old Filipp Budeikin, was arrested by investigators in the city of Saint Petersburg in November after allegedly inciting 15 teenagers on VK to commit suicide.

In an interview with local media shortly before his arrest, Budeikin outlined his tactics to attract teens he referred to as “biodegradable waste” and “people who are worthless for society.”

“First you have to create groups with depressing content that plunges you into a special atmosphere,” he said. “People click on links and enter a closed group. That’s when the game starts.”

Budeikin admitted he asked his victims to share personal information and perform certain “tasks”, which often involved self-mutilation or scarification.

“I just explained to some people why it was best to die, nothing more,” he said. “They are the ones who made that decision. No one forced them.”

Budeikin added that he was simply “cleansing society”. “Death groups” even threaten to blackmail their members by telling them they will go after their loved ones if they refuse to carry out the tasks, Novaya Gazeta reported.

The discovery of the VK death groups sent a jolt through Russian society, where the suicide rate among minors — 20 for every 100,000 people — is three times higher than the global average, according to World Health Organization (WHO) data.

Russia’s children’s ombudswoman Anna Kuznetsova said this month that the suicide rate among minors had increased nearly 57 percent last year after dropping in previous years, attributing the phenomenon to the “death groups.”