The social network TikTok is chockfull of interesting, fun, laugh-out-loud videos shared by creators worldwide. Kids, as well as parents, can easily spend hours glued to the platform. But as with most popular platforms, the fun can eventually turn dark, even deadly, when viral challenges make their rounds.
The latest viral challenge, the “blackout challenge,” first became popular online in 2008 and made its unfortunate comeback in 2021. Before this second round, the CDC attributed nearly 80 deaths to the dangerous online game. In the past month, authorities are attributing the tragic, high-profile deaths of Archie Battersbee, 12, and Leon Brown, 14 to the challenge.
What is it?
The blackout challenge is a choking game that involves intentionally trying to choke oneself or another to obtain a brief euphoric state or “high.” Death or serious injury can result if strangulation is prolonged. Those doing the challenge do it privately or broadcast their attempt to friends or followers. The CDC also found that most deaths occurred when a child engaged in the choking game alone and that most parents were unaware of the game before their child’s death.
What’s the appeal?
It’s easy to look at a challenge like this and dismiss it thinking your child would never be involved in such a dangerous game. However, in a recent post from HealthyChildren.org on why kids participate in online dares, pediatricians point to the reality that the teen brain is still developing. The part of the brain that processes rational thought, the prefrontal cortex, is not fully developed until a person’s mid-20s. This physiological reality means teens are naturally impulsive and can do things without stopping to consider the consequences.
Another lure that entices teens is that social media’s fast-moving, impulsive environment rewards outrageous behavior—the more outrageous the content, the bigger the bragging rights. The fear of losing out (FOMO is natural for teens.
Signs to look for
According to the CDC, signs that a child may be engaging in the blackout challenge include:
- They may talk about the game or use alternate terms such as “pass–out
game” “choking game,” or “space monkey.”
- They may have bloodshot eyes
- You may see marks on their neck
- They might have severe headaches
- They could show signs of disorientation after spending time alone
- You might notice the presence of ropes, scarves, or belts tied to furniture or doorknobs
- They may have unexplained items like dog leashes, choke collars, or bungee cords in their room.
5 talking points for families
- Dig in and discuss hard stuff. Set time aside to talk about the viral challenges your child may or may not notice online. Discuss the dangers, the physiology of being impulsive, and how social network communities inherently reward reckless behavior with likes and shares.
- Make the consequences personal. Do your homework. Pull up the relevant headlines and discuss the implications of the blackout challenge (and others), such as lack of oxygen to the brain, seizures, long-term complications, and death.
- Talk about digital peer pressure. Coach your kids through the dangers they encounter online they may take for granted. Ask them how they feel when they see someone doing dangerous things online and ways to avoid or discourage it. Are your kids rallying around the challenges or sharing the content? Do they try to be funny to get attention online?
- Establish ground rules. As tragic as these challenges are, they allow parents to pause and refresh family ground rules for online behavior and media use. Your kids have changed over time, as have their online communities, and interests. Design ground rules and media use expectations to help shape a safe, balanced digital life that reflects their current online activity.
- Add extra protection. We add security systems to our homes for additional protection from outside threats, so too, it’s wise to add security to our family devices to encourage content filtering, monitoring, and time limits.
Viral challenges will continue to emerge and shock us. There’s no way to anticipate them or control them. However, staying informed about dangerous online trends and keeping the lines of communication with your child open and honest is a big step toward equipping them to live a safe, balanced digital life.