Dangerous 'choking game' trend sweeping schools

A New Jersey high school student has died as a result of taking part in the risky “choking game,” according a letter sent home to parents on Wednesday.

The death of the Ridge High School student was “one of the tragic losses of student life we have experienced this year,” noted the superintendent, Nick Markarian, of the Bernards Township school system, according to MyCentralJersey.com.

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The student has not yet been identified. But while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not updated its statistics on choking game-related deaths since between 1995 and 2007 (when there were 82 such reported deaths), recent stories of similar losses have come out of districts in both Maryland and South Carolina.

The choking game — also called “the fainting game,” “space monkey,” “flatliner,” “blackout,” and “the knockout challenge,” among other nicknames — is a dangerous adolescent pastime that’s been around for decades, but has resurfaced again in recent years.

The dangerous trend - which has resulted in deaths - has resurfaced in recent years. Photo: Getty

To “play,” you use hands or a homemade noose to asphyxiate a friend (or, more and more, one’s self) just enough to cut off the airway, until he or she feels a quick, euphoric rush, which occurs due to hypoxia, or a lack of oxygen to the brain. The catch is that sometimes the person being choked will pass out or be left with irreversible brain damage — and sometimes, such with the teen in New Jersey, will even die.

That grim reality is the reason some school districts, including those in Utah, California, and West Virginia, have begun to teach choking-game awareness into their health curriculums.

Utah’s Iron County School District, for example, started teaching about the dangers of the game in 2014, after it left four students dead in just three years. “That data is too compelling to ignore,” Jennifer Wood, the district’s director of secondary-education alternative programs, told Yahoo at the time. “It’s amazing how many have played the game or know others who have. It goes back decades.”

Much of the country’s growing awareness can be credited back to Judy Rogg, also of Utah, who learned about the choking game in the worst way possible: After her son Erik died as a result of it, at the age of 12, in 2010. She has since founded the national organisation Erik’s Cause, and has teamed up with experts and researchers to follow through with her mission to educate the public on the choking game’s dangers.

School's in the US are teaching students of the dangers of the 'game'. Photo: Getty

“The common barrier you find at most schools is the notion that if we teach it, they’ll do it,” Rogg, who says she has been in touch with the parents of the recently deceased student in New Jersey, tells Yahoo Beauty — echoing the objection often raised by those opposed to teaching kids about sex or drugs.

“Also, there is fear on the part of school districts, because this is a subject that they have not tackled before. They don’t realise just how much access kids have to ‘how to play’ videos that make it appear like harmless fun,” she says, noting that the organisation’s training program for schools is simple and effective, offering kids skills and solutions. “And the proof is in the pudding: After being taught now in Iron County for three years, it’s been making a tremendous difference in the community,” Rogg notes. “Every parent, educator, and medical or mental health professional should read [our thorough explainer and rationale for education] Data Drives a Compelling Narrative to really understand the scope of the problem and the results of our solution.”

Studies show that 75 percent of kids surveyed have heard of some form of pass-out games, Rogg’s site points out, and that 20 to 32 percent of kids admit to having participated in these activities. Still, 82 percent of those who have participated report they were unaware of any dangers associated with the activity.

Accidental deaths from the choking game, experts note, can often mimic suicides, and are therefore difficult to document.

In his letter to parents, Markarian, the New Jersey superintendent, noted, “The early-adolescent brain does not process information in the same manner as an adult brain, and so children in this age group are not able to fully understand the serious consequences.”

Among the signs that someone is experimenting with the behavior, Markarian said, are bloodshot eyes, broken blood vessels on the face or eyelids, mood swings, disorientation after being left alone, frequent and occasionally severe headaches, and bruises or marks around the neck.

Parents should also look for other evidence, such as knots in neckties, belts, ropes or plastic bags left in bedrooms, he said.

On the Erik’s Cause website, mum Rogg offers a sobering warning for other parents. “Erik was a normal, active, bright and curious 6th grader — an A student, Boy Scout, and athlete, who had focused plans and dreams for his future. He learned about this from a schoolmate the day before he tried it at home and died,” she writes. “There were no warning signs because he had only just learned of it. Had we known about its dangers, we would have discussed it, and I am confident that he never would have attempted to ‘play’ it …he would be alive today.”

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