The Dangerous 'Choking Game' That Killed Four Kids in One County
Erik Robinson, who died in 2010 at age 12. Photo from Facebook/Erik’s Cause.
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“The choking game.” “Five minutes in heaven.” “Blackout.” “The knockout challenge.” Those are just a few of the names for a dangerous adolescent pastime that’s been around for decades but is back with a vengeance: Asphyxiate your friend (or yourself) just enough to cut off the airway, until he or she feels a quick, euphoric rush. The catch is that sometimes the person being choked will pass out or be left with irreversible brain damage — and sometimes will even die. That grim reality is the reason a Utah school district has become the first in the nation to agree to incorporate choking-game awareness into its health curriculum.
“We have had four of our young people die from the choking game in the last three years,” Jennifer Wood, director of secondary-education alternative programs for the Iron County School District in Utah, tells Yahoo Parenting. “That data is too compelling to ignore.” The half-hour lesson for grades five, seven, and 10 educates students about what happens to the brain when its oxygen supply is cut off, and also teaches refusal skills for dealing with peer pressure to partake in the risky game. “It’s amazing how many have played the game or know others who have,” adds Wood. “It goes back decades.”
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But why are kids so quick to try it? When it gets introduced in a group setting, explains Dr. Barbara Greenberg, a Connecticut-based clinical psychologist and author of “Teenage as a Second Language: A Parent’s Guide to Becoming Bilingual,” a “group-contagion thing” takes over. “When you get groups of teens together — or groups of anyone, for that matter — they’ll do things they wont do when alone, particularly engage in high-risk behavior.” She adds that adolescents are often prone to throwing caution to the wind “not necessarily because they’re not aware of the risk, but because they just overvalue the excitement.”
But what used to be solely a group activity, notes Wood, “is becoming something kids now try to do on their own.”
Det. Mike Bleak of Cedar City, Utah, who introduced the Iron County School District to the prevention program, believes “it’s progressed because of social media,” he says. He notes that, though the challenge is nothing new — he even tried it when he was a teen — kids today “have taken it up a notch,” adding in ropes, nooses, or scarves to achieve that rush of asphyxiation, which then becomes physically addictive.
Bleak learned of the prevention program after a local mom whose son had died from the choking game introduced him to Judy Rogg, head of the national organization Erik’s Cause. Rogg, whose son Erik Robinson was 12 when he accidentally died from the choking game in 2010, has made it her mission to educate the public on its dangers. But the restrictions of self-financing, plus resistance from school boards, have made it a challenge.
Judy Rogg and her son Erik. Photo by Facebook/Erik’s Cause.
“The common notion is if we teach it, they’ll do it. That’s the common barrier you find at most schools,” program creator Judy Rogg tells Yahoo Parenting, echoing the objection often raised by those opposed to teaching sex education. “There is tremendous fear on the part of school districts of potential litigations. …But this is effective education that gets through to kids, giving them skills and solutions.” A formal study analyzing the effectiveness of intervention on several hundred students is slated to come out of the University of California Davis Medical Center in 2015, and preliminary findings have been “positive,” Rogg notes. Erik’s Cause has also been making inroads with several California school districts, she says, some of which she hopes will adopt the education program soon.
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Bleak sought to educate himself more on the risks and prevalence of the choking game after he was asked to reopen the case of a local teen suicide in 2011: He eventually discovered it to have been a choking-game death. Accidental deaths like that one, he explains, can often mimic suicides. But if an investigator knows to look past the obvious signs of strangulation and do a “psychological autopsy,” along with forensic searches of phones and computers, evidence of the choking game — such as Internet searches on the topic — can suddenly outweigh that of a suicide, which typically includes a history of bullying, depression, and worrisome Facebook comments.
“I think, nationwide, the problem is a lot more widespread than anyone realizes,” Bleak notes. (The American Academy of Pediatrics reported in 2012 that up to 11 percent of children and adolescents have tried it.) He says he’s joined forces with Rogg to bring awareness to educators, parents, and law enforcement officials around the country. In Iron County earlier this month, Bleak led a public forum on the topic, bringing out about 20 parents on a weekday evening.
Although kids are secretive about experimenting with asphyxiation — most of the related deaths occur between 4 and 6pm, when parents are typically not yet home from work — Bleak notes that there are warning signs. They include:
•Marks and bruising around the neck
•Bloodshot eyes and other inexplicably chronic eye problems (caused by the force of cutting off oxygen to the brain)
•Frequent, severe headaches
•Uncharacteristic irritability or hostility, “almost like ’roid rage,” Bleak says
•Ropes, scarves, or belts tied to strange places, such as chairs or doorknobs
“I’ve become pretty passionate about it because the awareness isn’t out there,” Bleak explains, “and prevention is hugely important.”
Much of his inspiration has come from Rogg, who has dedicated her life to the issue since Erik’s death, a loss that “destroyed” her world.
“He learned [the choking game] at home on Monday and tried it on Tuesday. If I’d had the information, I could have talked with him about it,” she laments. “He was on top of the world, at the top of his game. He was focused. He had plans. He was a responsible kid. But he was 12. Kids that age can think through some of the consequences, but they can’t think through them all.”
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