Oak Park Public Health Director Theresa Chapple-McGruder is warning parents about a harmful social media fad that is leading to the death of young children, including that of her 9-year-old cousin in Philadelphia.
The fad is known as the “dark challenge” and encourages people to hold their breath until they pass out. The activity has gained popularity through TikTok, where videos of people asphyxiating themselves in order to feel dizzy or high have been posted. 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 save yourself after it goes further than people predict.”
The disruption challenge is by no means new. It has been around for decades under various names. When Chapple-McGruder was a teenager, it was called the “choking game.” She remembers only teenagers participating in the activity at the time. This was also quite dangerous, but recently, the victims of the challenge are much younger.
“The average age of death this year for people who do this is 9,” she said.
Children so young cannot fully understand the magnitude of the danger posed by such an activity, especially when it is dressed up to look like a fun game on social media. TikTok is known for creating crazy dance moves and lip-syncing challenges, and to a kid, something like the “shutdown challenge” might seem innocuous.
TikTok’s algorithms are very suggestive. After a video is viewed, several other videos appear 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 of self-suffocation.
Chapple-McGruder, who is about to go on maternity leave, has experienced the ruthless algorithm at work. She watched a video of someone participating in the TikTok trend “mother baby dance” because she thought the routine was funny. Then, she was inundated with videos of other people dancing.
“You see something once,” she said. “What happens is it just keeps getting amplified and it keeps showing up in your feed.”
TikTok may not be the only one to blame. 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 next night, he tried the challenge himself and died.
“Within 24 hours of seeing it on the news,” she said.
Chapple-McGruder is urging any parent or adult guardian to talk to their children about the dangers of the blackout challenge, even if they don’t have social media because trends don’t exist in a vacuum. Just because kids don’t have TikTok doesn’t mean they aren’t exposed to it elsewhere, so educating kids about the challenge is imperative.
The conversation will not be easy, but it is important. For her 10-year-old daughter, Chapple-McGruder stopped talking for three days. At the end of the conversation, she told the girl about the death of her cousin.
“It was an extremely difficult conversation, letting her know that her cousin was no longer alive because of this,” she said.
The two discussed not only the health risks, but also how to say no if someone asks her to try the challenge, and what to do if others are choking themselves — which means reporting it to an adult or parent. Social media was also a big part of the conversation. If someone asks her to watch a challenging TikTok video, her daughter now knows how to focus the conversation by saying the content makes her uncomfortable and suggesting she watch something else.
Having this discussion builds open communication between the child and parent or guardian, according to Chapple-McGruder. This open communication builds trust, allowing children to feel comfortable, not only to ask questions, but to share with their parent or guardian any situation in which they feel unsafe whether at school, on the playground or anywhere else.
“We need to empower our youngest children to speak up and know when it’s appropriate to act as an adult,” she said.