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The Deadly Choking Game: Is Your Child Playing It? How Would You Know?

Parents, including a Pine-Richland father, tell their stories to raise awareness.

Second of two parts

No public health agency or official organization tracks with certainty the number of U.S. children who die or are injured each year while engaging in the deadly activity known as the Choking Game.

The most recent statistics on Choking Game-related deaths available from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are several years old and are gleaned from media reports.

As is the case with the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's office, many county coroners or medical examiners do not keep specific statistics on these deaths or separate them from apparent suicides by hanging.

Around the country, a handful of volunteer or nonprofit organizations rely on a mixture of official and anecdotal information, but organizers acknowledge the data is incomplete.

Much public awareness of the so-called game, also known as the Pass-Out Game and other names, comes from parents who've discovered how it's played and the deadly risks it carries after their children have tried it.

Among them is a Pine-Richland father who contacted and spoke about it with Pine-Richland Patch after seeing a cell phone video of his daughter playing the game recently. His daughter was not harmed.

"No parent wants to think their child would do something so ridiculously stupid," writes Judy Rogg of Santa Monica, CA, on the website she started after her sixth-grader son, Erik Robinson, died in 2010.

The website Erik's Cause—Help Stop the Choking Game now aims to educate parents and children about its dangers and to persuade schools to incorporate warnings into curriculum.

"Our whole family was in denial—despite police insistence that this was the cause of Erik’s death—until one brave schoolmate spoke up," Rogg writes of the boy she describes as a "normal, healthy" A student, athlete and Boy Scout.

"His dream was to go to (the U.S. Military Academy at) West Point, enter the military and then law enforcement," she adds. "He was the opposite of a youth 'at risk.' Credible evidence is very strong that Erik’s first exposure to the choking game was during school the day before he tried it at home and died."

The Choking Game uses various techniques to create a feeling of euphoria by cutting off, then restoring the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain. Children learn of it from friends or websites, and they often view it as a way to get high without using drugs or alcohol.

Some participants choke themselves by using their hands, a belt, rope or dog leash around their necks. A number of young people have died by accidentally hanging themselves while engaging in the activity alone.

"Within three minutes of continued strangulation (i.e., hanging), basic functions such as memory, balance, and the central nervous system start to fail. Death occurs shortly after," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Those who practice it also risk loss of consciousness, brain damage due to oxygen deprivation, coma and seizures, concussions and broken bones, the CDC states.

Other names for the Choking Game

  • Pass-out game
  • Space monkey
  • Suffocation roulette
  • Scarf game
  • The American dream
  • Fainting game
  • Something dreaming game
  • Purple hazing
  • Blacking out/blackout
  • Dream game
  • Flat liner
  • California choke
  • Space cowboy
  • Airplaning
  • Purple dragon
  • Cloud nine

— Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Other parents, after discovering their children's involvement with the game, also have spoken out in media interviews, given speeches or organized nonprofit organizations that work to warn parents, children and educators.

Schools, too, have organized sessions and literature to alert and prepare parents to discuss the Choking Game and other risky behaviors.

"We need to always provide our staff, students and family members education and awareness of suffocation games as well as providing them a list of risk factors and preventive/intervention measures to take if they suspect a student is playing these games," Dr. Maura Paczan, a certified school psychologist with the Pine-Richland School District, said in a statement.

"PR is proactive. The district provides workshops and parent meetings that address many topics surrounding healthy emotional development. Self-harm behaviors have been discussed at those sessions," PRSD Communications Director Rachel Hathhorn said in an email.

"We ask that our students be responsible reporters when there is any type of safety issue in regard to their peers. We want our parents to be responsible reporters as well," Hathhorn continued.

"We encourage any parent who feels something of this nature is taking place to let the schools know. Everything is kept strictly confidential."

Hathhorn said parents can contact their child's school principal, counselor or Dr. Maura Paczan, lead school psychologist, at 724-443-7230, ext. 6503.

The Pine-Richland father who spoke of his daughter's recent experience said he found the recording during a routine check of the teen's cell phone. He asked that his name and that of his daughter be withheld.

Her horrified father said it looked like she was dying while playing the game with a group of friends from middle school. He said he saw his child hyperventilating, then someone grabbing her from behind and squeezing until she passed out.

"For those of you that think that this only happens to other families, you need to be aware of these stories," states GASP (Games Adolescents Shouldn't Play), a nonprofit organization that details cases involving the Choking Game on its website.

"Without a doubt each of these families believed that the Choking Game or other deadly games children play would not take the lives of their loved ones."

How Prevalent is the Game?

Prevalence of the dangerous game—locally or nationally—is anyone's guess. Until a death or injury occurs, the game generally stays in the shadows. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists 82 reported deaths between 1995 to 2007, but that statistic is based on media reports. The centers do not have more recent statistics available.

GASP offers more detailed statistics that it says it has accumulated from "victims lists". The international stats on its website show a peak of 151 deaths in 2006; its statistics date back to 1934.

Another group, the Dangerous Behaviors Foundation, also compiles a database of reported victims using data acquired from immediate family members, media accounts and other reliable sources, according to its website. 

Still, the organization founded in 2006 acknowledges that its data is not complete because many game-related deaths are not reported in that context.

"We do know from published CDC data that an estimated 800 to 1,000 kids between the ages of 10 to 19 die of strangulation every year," the DB Foundation states on its website. "Most of these are recorded as suicides. We do not know what percentage of these are actually accidents."

 

Warning signs of the Choking Game

  • Discussion of the game or its aliases
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Marks on the neck
  • Wearing high-necked shirts, even in warm weather
  • Frequent, severe headaches
  • Disorientation after spending time alone
  • Increased and uncharacteristic irritability or hostility
  • Ropes, scarves, and belts tied to bedroom furniture or doorknobs or found knotted on the floor
  • The unexplained presence of dog leashes, choke collars, bungee cords, etc.
  • Pinpoint-bleeding spots under the skin of the face, especially the eyelids, or the lining of the eyelids and eyes

— Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

 

Related national coverage:

Kids and the 'Choking Game': Resources for How to Get Help by ABC Nightline

Dangerous 'Games' That May Harm Kids and Teens by CBS News

Kids Are Passing Out for a Deadly High by NBC's Today

The Choking Game in Spring 2006 Promises, a publication of Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh

Teenager Casts Light on a Shadowy Game by the New York Times

A Dangerous Pastime for Teens: The Choking Game by Time Magazine

Discovering Teenagers' Risky 'Game' Too Late by the New York Times

Police Warn About Risky 'Pass-Out Game' by Chicago Tribune

 

Do you think the Choking Game is a problem in the Pine-Richland community? Tell us in the comments.

 

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