This Deadly Children's Game Has No Winners
Why on earth are so many kids choking themselves into uncounsiousness or even death?
The death of a 12-year-old Seattle girl has prompted school officials to alert parents to a troubling practice in which children intentionally cut off oxygen to their brains as a means of getting high.Parents, teachers, and others should be on the lookout for tell-tale signs that kids may be engaging in these deadly behaviors. Such signs include marks around the neck, bloodshot eyes and frequent headaches.
The so-called choking game may have killed the McKnight Middle School seventh-grader, who was found unconscious in her bedroom Wednesday with one end of a karate belt knotted around her neck, the other tied to the top of her bunk bed.
"Whether it is an accidental death or intentional death is the question, and I don't know if we'll ever find out," said Seattle Police Department spokesman Rich Pruitt. The King County Medical Examiner's Office determined only that the cause of death was asphyxia. An investigation is continuing.
Either way, officials in the Seattle and Renton public school districts hastily circulated information Thursday about the practice, in which kids use their hands, arms, ropes or belts to cut off oxygen to their brains and induce light-headedness to the point of passing out.
Most important, experts around the country said, was for parents to talk with children about the dangers.
Seattle Public Schools had already been researching the phenomenon as a response to several recent deaths by asphyxia among youths across the country.
One of them, 13-year-old Colin Russell of Tacoma, tightened a rope around his neck earlier this month while standing in a closet.
"This is sort of a teachable moment because it now has happened in our community," said Pegi McEvoy, a nurse practitioner in the Seattle public schools. "We wanted to make sure parents were alerted."
Russell had been an athletic, musical, highly engaged child, and his family told The News Tribune that there were no signs of intentional self-harm.
Dianna Brendle, a North Carolina mother, said her son Jason died similarly in 1999, when he was 14.
"He was hanging from his bunk bed with a necktie," she wrote in an e-mail to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
"He had slipped off the bottom bunk when he passed out (he was almost sitting on the floor), it was tied to the top side rail. ... This has got to be stopped, too many kids are doing it."
To some who counsel young people, such acts sound less like thrill-seeking than suicidal behavior.
"I remember playing this sort of game when I was a child, but I don't remember it having the same sort of stakes back then," said Sue Eastgard, director of the Youth Suicide Prevention Program, who has difficulty accepting that children strangling themselves alone in bedrooms or closets are simply playing a game.
"Kids do describe sort of loving that kind of rush that comes after you lose temporary consciousness and that tingly feeling that comes as blood flow moves again through your body," she said. "That's what I'm hearing, that it's the thrill of the rush."
Mostly, it's younger children, ages 9 to 14, who experiment in this area, experts said, and often, it is done in groups.
Thomas Andrew, the chief medical examiner in Concord, N.H., who has investigated two such deaths, said a child experimenting alone can lose consciousness within a minute, and afterward his own body weight falling against a rope can tighten it so that death occurs in less than four minutes.
"These games in one form or another have been with us for generations," Andrew said. "What's different is that this is the age of extremism -- extreme sports, extreme snacks and extreme games, too. So these kids are playing with ligatures, rather than a partner, and they're playing alone."
"It has scared me as a parent," said Christopher Cowles, clinical director of the Behavioral Health Clinic at Children's Regional Hospital and Medical Center in Bellevue.
"It just speaks to the need to monitor what our children are doing and know what's going on in their lives."
For additional information concerning the practice: Seattle School District, Teen Choking Game.com, ABC News, Decorabilia