The choking game is rampant in America’s schools. Variations have been practiced for thousands of years; an individual cuts off the supply of blood to the brain and gets a very mild euphoric “high”. So they say. Its appeal is, in part, that it costs nothing, it’s not illegal, can be done alone or with others, and there are no consequences.
Unless you die.
And that is happening with a pronounced frequency, fueled by social media and accessibility to videos of other kids doing it. You Tube. Facebook. Twitter. Pinterest. Instagram. If your choking game video is especially cool maybe you’ll go viral, so the thinking apparently goes.
Even if the child who engages in this risky behavior doesn’t die, many brain cells will. The longer the brain goes without oxygen the more cells that will never grow back. Willful brain damage.
While this is a global phenomenon, it is estimated that in the United States up to 16% of kids have tried the choking game at least once. That’s almost one in five. Look at a group of kids waiting for the school bus and if there are more than six kids, odds are one of them is strangling themselves for kicks. Belts and ropes are popular. Sometimes friends strangle friends.
There are several dangerous games kids play because – they’re kids. The frontal cortex of the brain doesn’t function until mid-20’s. They don’t understand consequences because their brains aren’t wired that way yet.
The choking game, in which children asphyxiate themselves on purpose. The fire challenge, in which kids douse their bodies with isopropyl alcohol and set themselves, briefly they hope, on fire. The cinnamon challenge, in which kids swallow a spoonful of cinnamon, sometimes causing irreparable lung damage. Eye-balling vodka, where kids pour vodka into their eyes for rapid absorption of the liquor, and possibly permanent cornea damage.
“It’s not a game. There are no winners. Games have winners,” says Vickie Morgan of Pasadena, TX. She had called out to her 17-year-old daughter Jenny in her bedroom that day in late December, shortly after Christmas 2008 and didn’t get a response. Vickie went to the room and found Jenny, standing by the bedpost, dead, rigid, strangled. Grasping for an explanation or understanding she assumed it was a senseless suicide. But there was one young policeman among the many who responded to the 9-1-1 call who had recently attended a conference on the choking game. He pulled Vickie’s husband, daughter and pastor aside and said, “You don’t hang yourself with your feet on the floor. I’m here to tell you, it’s the choking game.”
That’s how Vickie Morgan learned about this teenage prank, and she has made it her mission to inform everyone she can about this insidious form of a youthful lapse of judgment before someone else discovers the darkest side of the choking game the way she did. A website the family created in memoriam to Jenny offers more information.
“It’s not a game if no one wins.”
When giving presentations in classrooms, Vickie first tells students there won’t be any repercussions for how they answer her questions, then asks how many know about the choking game. Generally 75% of the hands go up. She asks how many have tried it. One third of the class.
Judy Rogg lives in Southern California, mother of an awesome 12-year old named Erik. “Off the chart smart, boy scout, baseball player, focused on going to West Point to be of service in his life. Went off to middle school one morning, happy as a lark. I came home to find him passed out by the choking game. I missed him by about 5 minutes.”
Judy says she was “blind-sided,” the same word Vickie used to describe her reaction.
"No clue that this even existed, and I’m a psychiatric social worker by training and spent years working in the drug and alcohol field. We had no clue this existed.”
Judy too is passionate, driven to inform everyone she can about the dangers of the choking game, to bring it into the national spotlight and the national dialogue, much as the issue of bullying has. “There is so much education about drugs, alcohol and tobacco. But this is something that’s not talk about. And it’s been around for generations.” Her website Erik’s Cause is an informative resource.
She compliments You Tube, owned by Google, on removing videos involving the choking game once notified of them. Facebook is a problem. In spite of many protestations about postings and videos the company has responded only by saying the choking game doesn’t constitute self-harm so it doesn’t violate their community guidelines. That’s very hard for a mother who stood by her young son’s grave to swallow. If she could have one wish, it would be that communities everywhere complain to Facebook about the life-threatening nature of the choking game and implore them to remove the websites that glorify it.
Vickie says one memory that has helped her get through was a note she received from an intermediate school student after having given a presentation on the risks of the choking game. The note said the girl had played several times, and had been planning to go home and play that very day, until she heard Vickie’s story. She promised that she would never do it again.