After a 12-year-old British boy died last week, the tabloids have been calling the "Choking Game" a "new craze". But it's been around for decades, killing young people since the 1930s.
You might remember the "Choking Game" from school. If not: the Choking Game is less of a game and more of a ritualistic display of short-sightedness, which basically involves the "player" purposefully depriving themselves of oxygen, before briefly passing out, so they can enjoy a short, heady sensation – kind of similar to a poppers high – as they stir back into consciousness.
Tragically, 12-year-old Karnel Haughton died last week after being found unconscious in his bedroom in Birmingham. He is thought to have been playing the Choking Game by himself while his mum was out at the shops.
Following the incident, family friend Bee Bailey posted a warning about the game to Facebook, explaining that Karnel's parents wanted to end speculation that their son had hung himself, and instead "raise awareness of a new craze amongst youngsters which is becoming terrifyingly popular online". She wrote: "Before the tragedy took place, Karnel had been telling his friends about a new game he had heard of, called the Choking Game."
Following Bailey's post, Britain's tabloid media pounced, using Karnel's death as a springboard to announce the "new online trend" of the Choking Game, which has supposedly become "popular on social media", in much the same way as the Ice Bucket Challenge or Neknominate.
While evidence of the game's supposed popularity on social media is incredibly scarce, one thing is certain: kids making themselves pass out for two seconds of mild euphoria is far from new. The "game" – which sees people strangle themselves with a belt, a rope or their bare hands; hyperventilate; or recruit a friend to push on their chests – has been around for decades, with the first recorded death in 1934, and caused a number of fatalities across Europe, the US and South Africa.
It's believed that this intentional passing-out – sometimes referred to as the "Good Boy Game", since the high doesn't rely on any drugs or alcohol – has claimed the lives of at least eight kids in the UK since 2010. According to the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC), the majority of Choking Game victims are white males between just 11 and 16 years of age, although the youngest reported victim is a six-year-old boy who saw his brother passing out before trying it himself, alone in his room.
Awareness campaign Games Adolescents Shouldn't Play (GASP) works to inform parents and students about the Choking Game, travelling to schools across the US and South Africa. Formed by devastated father Gavin Cocks after the loss of his own son to the Good Boy Game, the organisation publishes statistics and maps of Choking Game activity in a bid to work out where it's becoming popular, and to help advise parents of what they can do to stop their kids from taking part.
"I've spoken at more than 300 schools in South Africa about the game, and I haven't been to one where no one had ever heard of it, so it is very common," says Gavin over the phone, "it's just that parents don't think their kids are doing it."
According to Gavin, while kids used to just hear about the game through friends and older siblings, YouTube has broadened its reach. "There are very few videos that show any dangers to the game at all, and that's serious for us as an organisation, because kids don't see any problem with trying the games out," he claims.
For its part, YouTube has banned choking videos and says it routinely searches its site for videos that include harmful and inappropriate content. Mind you, it's not hard to find clips after a quick search. A study in 2010 found 65 videos of the Good Boy Game, which collectively had been viewed 173,550 times.
Gavin explains that it's hard to pinpoint the exact number of deaths because of the Choking Game, as officials label so many potential cases as death by suicide by strangulation or hanging. Unless parents are aware of the game, they're likely to assume the death was intentional.
Crucially, though – as Gavin already knows – kids are well-aware of the pass-out challenge. A 2010 study by the CDC claims that up to 75 percent of US minors have heard of at least some form of the pass-out game, with between 20 to 30 percent of those kids admitting to having participated in it. At the same time, 82 percent of those surveyed said they were unaware or any dangers associated with partaking in such games.
According to the public health institute, 82 minors died while experimenting with the game between 1995 and 2007, more than twice the amount of deaths compared to the previous decade, leading researchers to conclude that the internet is helping to spread the "craze". The US branch of GASP reported 672 deaths in the same period, putting the discrepancy between numbers down to the amount of fatalities they believe were wrongly detailed as suicide.
"A lot of the children are not in a depressed state when they try the games; they want a little bit of an extra kick, as you do when you have a drink or a cigarette to calm your nerves after a long day at work," says Gavin. "They've never been told not to, and they've never been told the consequences, so they just do it. But if they pass out with a belt around their neck, they only need be there for three or four minutes before they're exposed to serious brain injury, or worse, death."
While the tabloids might be a little off the mark in labelling the Good Boy Game a deadly new "online craze", they're not completely wrong. Passing out intentionally like this – whether you call it the "Good Boy Game", "Space Cowboy" or "Purple Hazing" – can cause death or serious injury, and that's really not worth it for that fleeting high. Want to feel lightheaded for literally two seconds? You're much better off spinning around in a circle or just standing up really quickly.
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