Social media trend blamed for numerous deaths

Staff Writer
Published: 6/16/2021 6:01:22 PM

Family members of Nate Squires said the 13-year-old Amherst resident died this week as a result of attempting what is known on social media platforms as the “blackout challenge.”

According to a GoFundMe page created by Samantha Thomas, the sister-in-law of Squires’ parents, the death was a result of the dangerous social media trend.

“Both Rachel and Dave want the world to know of the circumstances that surround Nate’s death to ensure that this does not happen to another family,” a statement read.

The blackout challenge, in which users of social media apps asphyxiate themselves until they lose consciousness, has been blamed for the deaths of youths in the United States and internationally.

In March, it was linked to the death of a 12-year-old from Colorado who was hospitalized in critical condition after reportedly participating in the challenge. In February, a 10-year-old’s death in Italy was linked to alleged participation in the challenge.

Reports of similar “choking games” have a history that traces back over the past couple of decades.

In 2008, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning about a choking game in which young people were participating, which it described as “self-strangulation or strangulation by another person.”

Two years later, the CDC reported that 82 deaths in the U.S. were attributed to the choking game and other strangulation activities during the period of 1995 to 2007.

Other names for similar choking games have included the “passout challenge,” or “speed dreaming,” according to media reports.

Dr. Estevan Garcia, chief medical officer at Cooley Dickinson, encouraged parents to have “open and honest” conversations with their children about what they are seeing on social media platforms.

“Looking over social media accounts is not an invasion of privacy,” Garcia said Wednesday — “taking the opportunity when tragedy happens to highlight the risks — and working at every other opportunity — with our own children to make it comfortable for them to tell you what they are worried about on social media.”

Teens and adolescents are at a stage of life where they are more likely to display risk-taking and thrill-seeking behavior, especially now with the pandemic receding domestically, Garcia noted.

“It’s really concerning,” he said. “And the social pressure associated with a lot of social media is something we need to talk about.”

Garcia said he has not personally seen cases of self-asphyxiation by children due to choking games at Cooley Dickinson since his arrival in 2017, nor during his nearly three decades in pediatric medicine, but he advised that parents should be watchful for the physical signs or symptoms.

Marks on the neck and bloodshot eyes are two signs, Garcia said. Children who are socially isolated are at the most risk, especially those who suffer from depression or social anxiety, he said.

Although no social media platform was specified in the GoFundMe page statement for Squires, the Gazette reached out to social media companies about their policies on choking game trends such as the blackout challenge.

In a statement to the Gazette, a TikTok spokeswoman said the company has blocked the hashtag “#BlackoutChallenge” from appearing on its platform, and it does not allow “content depicting, promoting, normalizing, or glorifying activities that could lead to suicide, self-harm, or eating disorders.”

The spokeswoman added that TikTok does not “permit users to share content depicting them partaking in, or encouraging others to partake in, dangerous activities that may lead to serious injury or death.”

“TikTok works with leading youth safety organizations, including the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the National PTA, the Family Online Safety Institute, and ConnectSafely, to develop policies and features that prioritize the safety of youth,” read a statement from TikTok.

It continued, “With the input of our partners, we’ve developed our Family Pairing features which allow parents to link their TikTok account to their teens to enable a variety of browsing and privacy settings; our Youth Portal which educates teens about digital literacy; and our new Guardian’s Guide to TikTok, a one-stop-shop for parents to learn the ins and outs of TikTok and the tools available for their family.”

The Gazette also reached out to Instagram and Twitter for comment.

Garcia noted that, ultimately, it is up to parents to monitor their children’s activity on social media.

“If we allow our child to use a social media platform, it is up to us to know what’s on there,” Garcia said.

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com.


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