Several years ago, when I first heard about “the choking game” that both young children and teens were playing, it was terrifying. It didn’t involve drugs, alcohol or any other hard-to-get illegal substances—all a kid needed was a pair of hands. Yet this “game” could lead to serious consequences, such as seizure and death.
That’s why I was disheartened to see a recent headline announcing that more kids have been playing it in recent years than I even imagined.
ANOTHER WAY TO GET HIGH
The choking game can be called lots of things, including “Pass Out,” “California High” and “Fainting Game.” The point is to block blood flow from the carotid arteries in the neck to the brain just long enough to induce unconsciousness or nearly so. Kids can do this in a number of ways—either to themselves or to each other. Some use fingers to press on the throat while others use a strangulation device, such as a belt, rope or towel. The blocked blood flow induces a sense of euphoria just before players experience a brief blackout and again as the blood is released and rushes back into the brain. (This should not be confused with a similar strangulation technique that heightens erotic sensations.)
Researchers at the Crime Victims’ Institute at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, wanted to get a sense of how many kids are still playing this hazardous game and how and why they do so, so they surveyed 837 male and female university students for information about the game-playing that took place when they were growing up, what they played themselves and what they witnessed among their friends.
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- Approximately 16% of the students reported that they had played the choking game at least once when growing up, and it was more popular with boys than girls.
- Most kids who played did so more than once—72% of players admitted to doing it multiple times to re-experience the high.
- Curiosity was the main reason that kids played the game.
- Nearly all of them had learned about the game through word of mouth, although 8% reported that they discovered it via the Internet or TV.
- The age at which students first played the game ranged from seven to 22, but, on average, first-time players were age 14.
As frightening as all of this is, there was one bright spot amidst these saddening stats—it appears that awareness and prevention efforts work. Among kids who played the game, about 47% had not been informed about the dangers. Among kids who did not play the game, only around 25% had not received warning about the dangers of the game—the other 75% were well-aware of the dangers and considered it “too risky” to play.
The report was published online at the Crime Victims’ Institute Web Site this past January. For help interpreting the data, I called Glen Kercher, PhD, director of the institute.
EDUCATION IS KEY
Despite the fact that kids who are taught about the dangers of the game do actually change their ways, the report found that only 17% to 23% of the kids said that their parents had discussed the risks with them. Dr. Kercher’s advice to all parents couldn’t be more direct. “Talk about it,” he said. “Ask if your child has ever heard of this game and if he or she is curious about it, and then explain what the potential consequences of the game are, such as having seizures and even death.”
Dr. Kercher stressed that parents must be aware of the following red flags…
- Bruising or red marks around the neck
- Consistently wearing clothes to cover the neck
- Bloodshot eyes
- Ligatures such as ropes, sheets, belts or ties tied in knots and/or found in unusual places, such as hanging from the top of a bunk bed or a closet rod
- Heightened demands for privacy and locked or blocked bedroom or bathroom doors
- Frequent, sometimes severe headaches
- Wear marks on furniture such as bunk beds or closet rods
If you’re suspicious that your kid may be playing it, Dr. Kercher recommends monitoring your child extra closely—don’t allow closed doors in the home, watch the interactions between your child and his/her friends for signs or comments, double-check that a parent will be home if your child goes to someone else’s home and don’t leave your child home alone. While they call this a “game,” many kids actually play alone, making it the most deadly form of the game, since there is no one to get the child medical help if he or she has a seizure. Authorities actually believe that some teenage hanging suicides are in fact casualties of the game.