What to Know About This Dangerous Fad: The Choking Game

Kids have always been prone to dangerous stunts and high-risk activities, but thanks to social media and YouTube, they can now spread the word about fad games outside their close circle of friends. Case in point: The Choking Game, a stunt in which people choke each other or themselves until they’re about to pass out and get a momentary high as they regain consciousness, has been gaining popularity recently.

Children and teens have been playing the Choking Game since at least the 1930s, but the game has evolved. In the past, children usually played in small groups, using their hands to choke one another, and they spread the “rules” of the game via word of mouth. Now kids can learn how to do it online and they’re often playing alone using belts and shoelaces, which makes the game more dangerous — even deadly.

“You can still die with people around, but it’s definitely more dangerous alone,” said Dawn Peters, MD, a pediatrician at Alewife Brook Community Pediatrics in Arlington, Massachusetts. “You think you’re going to know when to stop, but once you’re not getting blood to your brain, all your warning signals are compromised, so you can’t get yourself out of it. It just easily goes too far, and then you pass out. If you’re alone, you can’t remove the belt or rope or whatever it was.”

So what do parents need to know about the Choking Game, and how can they help protect their children from this and other fad games?

Risks and Warning Signs

Most people survive the Choking Game, giving players a false sense of security, but the game claims at least a few lives each year. Some years, when the game has really made a comeback, it claims dozens. In the U.S., 82 children (ages 6 to 19) died after playing between 1995 and 2007, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The majority of victims were boys between ages 11 and 16. The CDC hasn’t studied the issue since 2008, but between 2000 and 2015, more than 1,400 adolescents died from accidental hanging and strangulation.

Warning signs that a child might be playing this dangerous game include:

  • Discussing the game, which is also called the Pass-Out Challenge, the Fainting Game and “Space Monkey”

  • Bloodshot eyes

  • Marks or bruises on the neck

  • Severe headaches

  • Disorientation after spending time alone

  • Scarves, shoelaces or belts tied to bedroom furniture or doorknobs or found knotted on the floor

  • Unexplained presence of ropes, dog leashes, choke collars or bungee cords

If parents suspect their child might be engaging in fad games, Dr. Peters suggests talking to them about the dangers and risks or bringing them to their pediatrician for help and guidance.

Talking to Your Kids About Fad Games

Some fad games have been around for years and continually regain popularity thanks to the internet. Others were born online — including the Tide Pod Challenge and the Condom Challenge, where kids snort a condom up one nostril and try to pull it through the other. And there are certainly other fad games that have yet to be invented or popularized.

How can parents keep their kids safe? Dr. Peters suggests they try to stay informed about dangerous trends, and more importantly, about their children’s lives.

“Do your best to have open communication with your kids at every age, especially in middle school and high school when it’s really challenging because they don’t want to open up,” said Dr. Peters. “They might not tell you everything, and they might get annoyed that you even asked. But you want to normalize communication.”

This means you should feel comfortable asking your teen questions every day, not just when you suspect them of something.

“Ask open-ended questions about their day and what they’re doing when they’re over at friends’ houses, and keep an eye on them at home,” Dr. Peters said. “As kids get older, we think they need less supervision, but they can still get into trouble [when they’re] home alone. Also, try talking to your kid’s friends. Sometimes they’ll tell you things that your kid won’t.”

Dr. Peters says parents should try to be observant and present, but it’s also important to realize that some things are out of their control. “Sometimes you do everything that you can, but kids can be sneaky and really good at hiding things — from their parents, their teachers, their doctors. As parents, we can try our best to be attentive, be present, be good listeners, provide guidance, and hope they’ll make good decisions,” she said.

For more resources on keeping your child safe, contact a Lahey Health pediatrician.

*The content on this website is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Please consult a physician regarding your specific medical condition, diagnosis and/or treatment.

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