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Is Your Child Playing the 'Choking Game'?

Survey Finds 6% of Oregon 8th-Graders Have Tried the Potentially Deadly Activity
By Rita Rubin
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

April 16, 2012 -- It was a typical, relaxed Saturday in the Grant home. Jesse, 12, was playing video games with his 10-year-old brother and his cousin.

But while waiting his turn, Jesse ducked into his bedroom, closed the door, and accidentally hanged himself with a computer cord while playing a solitary "choking game."

That was seven years ago this week, and thanks to Jesse's mother, Sharon, and other victims' parents, the so-called game has garnered increasing attention from the media and academia.

A new study, from a survey of nearly 5,400 Oregon 8th-graders, shows that 6.1% said they'd tried the choking game at least once, which is consistent with previous studies from other states and Canada. Of those who reported participating in the choking game, 64% said they had done it more than once, and 26.6% reported doing it more than five times.

The game goes by many names -- "Knock Out," "Space Monkey," "Flatlining," or "The Fainting Game" to name a few -- according to the new report. Players apply pressure to the main artery in their neck, with a belt, towel, rope, or other item, to limit oxygen and blood flow to the brain. Their goal: a "high" once the pressure is released and blood and oxygen rush back to the brain.

Deaths Probably Underreported

Between 1995 and 2007, there were 82 U.S. deaths attributed to the choking game in children 6 to 19, according to the CDC. However, the scientists write, that's likely an underestimation because it includes only deaths covered by the media. And, says researcher Robert Nystrom, adolescent health manager at the Oregon Public Health Division, some deaths from the choking game end up being classified as suicides.

Kids have been playing the choking game for at least half a century, but YouTube and social media have made it more pervasive than ever, Nystrom says.

And if children have tried it once, they're likely to try it again, the Oregon survey shows. Two-thirds of the kids who said they'd ever tried it had tried it more than once, and more than a quarter said they'd tried it more than five times.

Getting the Word Out

"The public health challenge right now is getting awareness and education to adults and [health care] providers," Nystrom says. A 2009 report noted that up to a third of pediatricians had never heard of the choking game, he says.

"Those that had [heard of it] had limited ability to identify signs and symptoms." Assessing young patients' risk of dangerous behaviors such as the choking game needs to be a part of teen doctor visits, Nystrom says.

Some children who engage in the behavior might be overlooked because of myths surrounding it, he says. One common belief is that boys are much more likely to play the choking game than girls, but his study found the sexes were pretty even.

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