Oak Park Public Health Director Theresa Chapple-McGruder is warning parents of a harmful social media fad that is leading to the deaths of young children, including that of her own 9-year-old cousin in Philadelphia.
The fad is known as the “blackout challenge” and encourages people to hold their breath until they lose consciousness. The activity has gained popularity through TikTok, where videos have been posted of people asphyxiating themselves for the purpose of feeling dizzy or high. The so-called “game” can lead to death, according to Chapple-McGruder.
“You’re cutting off oxygen to your brain,” she said. “And a lot of times you can’t then rescue yourself once it goes further than people are anticipating.”
The blackout challenge is far from new. It has been around for decades under different monikers. When Chapple-McGruder was a teenager, it was called the “choking game.” She remembers only teenagers partaking in the activity at that time. That was also plenty dangerous, but more recently, the victims of the challenge are far younger.
“The average age of death this year of people doing it is 9,” she said.
Children that young cannot fully comprehend the magnitude of the danger presented by such an activity, especially when it is dressed up to look like a fun game on social media. TikTok is known for creating dance crazes and lip-synch challenges, and to a child, something like the “blackout challenge” may look just as innocuous.
TikTok’s algorithms are powerfully suggestive. Once one video is viewed, several other videos pop up immediately after, inviting the user to watch similar content.
The families of a 9-year-old from Wisconsin and an 8-year-old from Texas are suing TikTok, arguing that the social media giant’s algorithms encouraged the two girls to take part in the challenge. Both girls died from self-strangulation.
Chapple-McGruder, who is about to go on maternity leave, has experienced the relentless algorithm at work. She watched one video of someone participating in the TikTok “baby mama dance” trend because she thought the routine was funny. Afterwards, she was inundated with videos of other people doing the dance.
“You see something one time,” she said. “What happens is it just keeps getting reinforced and shows up over and over on your feed.”
TikTok might not be solely at fault. Chapple-McGruder’s 9-year-old cousin didn’t have TikTok. He learned about the challenge while watching a news segment about the blackout challenge. The following night, he tried the challenge himself and died.
“Within 24 hours of just seeing it on the news,” she said.
Chapple-McGruder is urging every parent or adult guardian to talk to their children about the dangers of the blackout challenge, even if they do not have social media as trends don’t exist in a vacuum. Just because children don’t have TikTok does not mean they are not being exposed to it somewhere else, so educating children about the challenge is imperative.
The talk won’t be easy, but it is important. For her 10-year-old daughter, Chapple-McGruder broke the conversation up over three days. At the end of the conversation, she told her daughter about the death of her cousin.
“It was an extremely tough conversation, letting her know that her cousin was no longer alive because of it,” she said.
The two discussed not only the health hazards, but how to say no if someone asks her to try the challenge and what to do if others are choking themselves — which is to report it to an adult or parent. Social media was a big part of the conversation too. If someone asks her to watch a blackout challenge TikTok video, her daughter now knows how to pivot the conversation by stating that content makes her uncomfortable and suggesting watching something else.
Having this discussion builds open communication between the child and the parent or guardian, according to Chapple-McGruder. That open communication engenders trust, allowing children to feel comfortable, not only to ask questions, but to share with their parent or guardian any instances in which they find themselves feeling unsafe either at school, on the playground or anywhere else.
“We need to empower our younger children to speak up, and to know when it’s appropriate to get an adult,” she said.