The 'skull breaker challenge' is trending on TikTok. Why doctors say it could be fatal.

Kerry Justich
·6 min read
Doctors are now warning against the skull breaker challenge taking over social media. (Photo: Twitter)
Doctors are now warning against the skull breaker challenge taking over social media. (Photo: Twitter)

A new dangerous trend taking over TikTok is now making headlines as parents across the globe warn of the severe harm it can cause.

The “skull breaker challenge” originated in Spain when two students began to film themselves executing the seemingly harmless move with an unsuspecting third participant. The trend captures three individuals standing in a row before jumping straight up. While the middle person is in the air, the two on the sides kick inwards to knock them off of their feet and onto their head.

However, its dangers quickly became evident as the middle participant continued to become the victim of injuries to the head, neck and wrist. At least two children in the United States have been hospitalized after attempting the challenge.

One viral video out of Venezuela, in particular, demonstrated how a person can sustain an injury from the stunt — dubbed “Rompecráneos” in Spanish, meaning skull cracker — when the student fell onto the back of his head on the ground outside of his school. Although the video has since been removed from social media, the video is archived on Twitter. Administrators of the school where it took place also took to social media to condemn it.

“Recently, a video has been made viral on social networks, in which some baccalaureate students of our institution are exposed, making a game where the ... physical integrity of one of the young people would allegedly be put at risk. In the aforementioned video, the badge of the College is clearly distinguished, whose symbol represents the institutions,” one of the school’s tweets, translated in English, reads.

Despite the injuries that some international outlets reported, the school did not address any serious harm caused by the stunt, other than “the alarm that the events occurred may cause.” Still, the statement goes on to say, “the parties involved (the students with their respective representatives) were summoned to the Directorate of the College to initiate the corresponding procedures, attached to the relevant legal provisions.”

The Feb. 4 statement didn’t prevent the trend from spreading, as it became popular in India, the United Arab Emirates and the U.S. Now, parents in the U.S. are doing their part to shed light on the severity of the stunt by posting warnings attached to photos of their injured children on Facebook.

“I really contemplated posting this, but I feel there needs to be awareness of this malicious cruel viral prank,” Arizona mother Valerie Hodson wrote on Facebook about her young son who was tricked in the stunt by two friends. “He landed hard flat on his back and head, as he struggled to get up he lost consciousness, he fell forward landing on his face. The school monitor ran to his side, all the while the 2 boys were snickering and laughing as his stiff unconscious body lay on the asphalt. Fast forward at the hospital, he has a head injury, stiches [sic] in his face, severe cuts inside his mouth and 2 front teeth I have to keep on eye on. This apparently is a Tik Tok viral prank being filmed and gaining likes on social media.”

Days later, a mom in Alabama posted a similar warning, this time asking for prayers for her son who had to get surgery on his wrist as a result of the TikTok prank.

“The safety and well-being of our users is a top priority at TikTok,” a TikTok spokesperson tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “As we make clear in our Community Guidelines, we do not allow content that encourages, promotes, or glorifies dangerous challenges that might lead to injury, and we remove reported behavior or activity that violates our guidelines. To help keep our platform safe, we have introduced a slate of safety features geared towards enhancing our users’ experience, including tools for reporting inappropriate content and for managing privacy settings.”

Videos of the skull breaker challenge on TikTok have been replaced by “skull saver” challenges, in which users are reenacting the challenge without the hazardous kick, as well as public service announcements about the dangerous stunt.

According to Nathan Richards, MD, a physician who specializes in internal medicine and pediatrics at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, both outcomes were better than the irreversible damage that can occur. The skull breaker challenge, he tells Yahoo Lifestyle, can even be fatal.

“The skull breaker challenge is an emerging prank being propagated on social media that results in forceful trauma to the head and neck area. It can be associated with a variety of serious and even life-threatening injuries including, but not limited to, bruising, hematoma, skull fracture, neck strain, neck fracture, concussion and long term complications of concussion, bleeding in or around the brain, loss of consciousness, paralysis, and death,” Richards explains. “Although it can seem like a harmless prank to children and adolescents, they should be educated on the potential serious consequences of doing the skull breaker challenge.”

Denise Klinkner, MD, a pediatric surgeon at the Mayo Clinic Children’s Center in Rochester, Minnesota adds that the person in the middle of the stunt will likely become injured even if prepared for what it entails. “In spite of knowing this is the intent, the falling teen rapidly lands without blocking the fall, leading to at minimum a concussion,” she says. “If one is able, an outstretched hand to block the fall may lead to a broken wrist or arm.”

As for why children and teens continue to take part in these challenges despite knowing the potential danger, Sabrina Sykes, PhD, a psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center writes that it’s all about the “wow factor.”

“New online challenges routinely spring up and rapidly spread over social media, particularly among adolescents and young adults,” Sykes explained in a blog post about the appeal of online challenges. “Social media, in turn, offers instant popularity among peers in the form of ‘likes’ and ‘followers,’ providing peer acceptance, buoying the teen’s self-concept and, therefore, enhancing the draw to participate in these challenges.”

She went on to credit the still-developing prefrontal cortex for an adolescent’s inability to manage their impulses or make responsible decisions, working in tandem with the very real fear of missing out. “This means teens are highly motivated to engage in socially rewarding behavior and gravitate toward thrill-seeking, without focusing on potential risks or consequences,” she wrote.

Still, parents and adults can intervene in their teen’s online behavior, according to Sykes, and take part in productive conversations that can improve a child’s judgment.

“Parents should familiarize themselves with social media platforms and engage their teen in conversations about online challenges,” Sykes’ post reads. “Remember that while teens continue to grow and navigate social relationships, through these conversations parents can foster the development of thoughtful and rational thinking skills, while also maintaining connection.”

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