After tragedy, local mom discovers game with lethal potential
Bruising and red marks around the neck. Bloodshot eyes and headaches. Brain damage.
Those are a few of the side effects of the choking game, a practice of starving the brain of oxygen, which, in turn, can produce a temporary high and may induce fainting.
According to behavior analyst Maria Vanderklok, its popularity among teens has surged in recent years thanks to social media, especially YouTube, but the game has been around for quite a while. It is also known as the pass-out game, airplaning and speed dreaming – but teenagers may know it best as a free way to get a quick buzz, with no perceived costs associated.
Therein lies the problem.
On March 13, Parker Hanser, a local student, was found hanging from a punching bag in his room. His mother, Jenifer, said the initial assumption was that Parker had committed suicide. “That’s what the police thought,” Jenifer said. But she didn’t. “I’m thinking, this makes no sense, this doesn’t add up.”
Jenifer said her family didn’t feel that Parker would have taken his own life. He had spent the majority of the day, the first day of spring break, playing Xbox with one of his sisters.
Jenifer said the family assumed that Parker had been trying to take his punching bag down, slipped and suffered an accident.
“For six weeks, that’s what we thought happened,” Jenifer said.
Eventually that assumption changed. In the following weeks, Jenifer learned two new things. The first came when one of her daughters showed the family a video from the Internet of the choking game in action. In it a local student crosses his arms, placing his hands on his carotid arteries, and has a friend push on his chest. After a moment, the student collapses, twitching on the ground while his friends laugh. After few more seconds the student stands up with a confused look on his face, the experience over.
The second thing Jenifer learned was that Parker had actually choked one of her daughters, causing her to pass out in the Hansers’ family room.
Jenifer said she began to research the choking game and began to recall some warning signs that the game had taken place.
“In his room, I’d find the belt hooked to the bed post, I’d find a lanyard that was twisted into what looks like a choke collar,” Jenifer said. She’s also found a shoe lace tied into a slipknot, replicating a noose.
Jenifer now firmly believes Parker passed away playing the choking game.
This so-called game can either be played in a group, as in the video, or alone, by choking oneself with ligatures. According to Chesterfield Police Detective Eric Wittman, the group scenario is more often the case.
“Kids think that they are indestructible, and that there’s no consequence to it,” Wittman said. “But if it’s taken too far, there can be some pretty serious consequences.”
Many of the game’s consequences also can serve as signs that the game is being played. Bruising and red marks around the neck, bloodshot eyes and headaches can be tell-tale signs, but they are only tip of the iceberg – the consequences of the choking game get more serious the farther down the list you go.
“Once you deprive your brain of oxygen, it has an effect on your motor skills, your cognitive skills, your social skills and its just sad, and scary,” Vanderklok said.
Since reports of deaths due to the choking game are low, Vanderklok said many kids see the game as a low-risk way to get a cheap high.
“But bad things can happen, because playing this game, you are depriving your brain of oxygen,” Vanderklok said. “So what happens is some kids have seizures, some kids end up with mental issues because of it, or brain injuries because of it.”
Depending on the area of the brain affected, that damage could manifest in any number of signs. There could be motor damage, resulting in something off with the way a teen is walking or perhaps having trouble holding onto things. The damage could impact their speech, making it delayed or slow, and cognitive and emotional problems can also result.
Dr. Ujjwal Ramtekkar, child psychiatrist and medical director for psychiatry at Mercy Virtual, said the brain damage suffered from oxygen depravation can cause short-term memory loss and a loss of ability in decision making, attention and planning. Reaction times also can be affected, and Ramtekkar said this impaired judgment can make an activity like driving very dangerous.
Vanderklok said once it gets to this point, the damage is permanent.
According to Wittman, some signs, such as ties, belts or any other ligature devices attached to bedposts or doorknobs are giveaways that teens may be playing the game as are signs of strangulation.
Ramtekkar said that sudden irritability, secrecy or confused behavior also serve as signs that something is amiss.
Teens talking about the game with friends, or on social media, may indicate an interest in or that a teen is already playing.
Social media plays a larger role in the game than parents may initially suspect. While teens may be shy to discuss the game with parents, many aren’t so bashful when it comes to posting their choking exploits on YouTube and Twitter.
“If they are on the Internet, the world is very broad for them, so they can learn just about anything that is out there,” said Parkway’s Southwest Middle principal Craig Maxwell.
At a former job, Maxwell dealt with the choking game firsthand. He said a student had seen a small group of kids playing the game in the gymnasium locker room while changing clothes for PE. That student reported the activity to a teacher, and Maxwell said the faculty was able to start investigating the incident quickly. During that investigation, the students actually taught their instructors a few things, showing them clips of the game being played on YouTube.
The game at school
Neither the Parkway nor Rockwood school districts directly teach students about the game or its dangers. Instead, representatives from both school districts told West Newsmagazine they focus on teaching students how to make good life choices.
Eddie Mattison, PE facilitator for Rockwood, said the district teaches students about how to deal with things like self-harm, stress and peer pressure in a positive way.
“We really like to keep it general because of the ever-changing trends in self-harm,” Mattison said. “The bottom line is that we are educating every one of our students that goes through our sixth grade, seventh grade, eighth grade and high school health courses to make good decisions, and we are bringing to the forefront the positive and negative effects of those decisions.”
Parkway said that district focuses its efforts on character education, working to create ethical values in its students, and to give them the knowledge and skills to make healthy choices for themselves. According to Robin Wallin, director of Health Services for Parkway, it’s a delicate balance.
One thing educators have to be cognizant of is the difference between education and putting unhealthy ideas into a student’s head, Wallin said.
“There’s this fine line when you are working with kids on actually making suggestions, versus prevention,” she explained. “You have to walk that really fine line. But you can put ideas (in their heads) about making healthy decisions and avoiding taking risks.”
If a situation where something like the choking game were to raise its head, Maxwell said a school’s first priority would be to make sure the students taking part in it are safe.
Following that, the next step would be to educate those students so the situation doesn’t occur anymore or spread to other students. That education, officials said, would focus on the dangers of such behaviors and healthy alternatives to those behaviors.
So just how many kids are playing the choking game?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported only 82 deaths attributed to the choking game for children ages 6 to 19 during 1995-2007, the most recent period for which data exist. Of these, the majority of those deaths fell into the 12- to 15-year-old age range.
In 2008, the Oregon Healthy Teens survey, an annual population-based anonymous survey of eighth- and 11th-grade students, asked 10,642 youths several questions about the choking game. According the CDC, 36.2 percent of the participants had heard of the choking game, and 30.4 percent had heard of someone participating in it. Additionally, 2.6 percent had helped someone participate, and 5.7 percent had participated themselves.
That difference between the reported deaths, and percentages of teens playing the game may come down to simple misunderstanding.
“Unfortunately, it could just be labeled as suicide by hanging, when it was a non-suicidal, self-asphyxia behavior,” Ramtekkar said.
He added that the reason teens may play the game ties into the teenage desire to participate in thrill-seeking behavior; many of the teens participating in the game might not be those you’d initially suspect.
“Teenage is the phase of life that we call identity formation, which is when the kids are very inquisitive,” Ramtekkar said. “They want to experiment, so they do experiment with drugs and sexual experimentation and other high-risk behaviors, so it’s part of getting that thrill. “But the kids who engage in this particular game are also the ones who probably have very high standards, high moral standards, who are very high-functioning, who don’t want to be doing all those (other) things and get in trouble, either by parents or society.”
Shutting down the game
Jenifer said teens need to be taught there is no such thing as a safe high. Opening those lines of communication between parent and child must be part of that, she said, even though many may find it difficult.
“I don’t want to say, ‘are they strong enough? But are they willing? Willing to talk about something uncomfortable?’” Jenifer said.
Maxwell also said that keeping the lines of communication open between teachers and students is important. He uses Southwest Middle’s advisory period as an example to do that. The advisory period is a homeroom-style class that focuses on building the relationships between teachers and students. Every Monday morning, the teachers in the advisory period hold a check-in, according to Maxwell, and ask students about their weekends and the things going on in their lives.
“I think middle school age is just an interesting age, because that’s that transition period between really being adult pleasers, to wanting to be independent,” Maxwell said. “I think there’s just a heightened level of curiosity about things, and so I think sometimes students in the middle school years are maybe more vulnerable to curiosity about things that maybe might not be healthy.”
On the flip side, Maxwell noted that curiosity is a great characteristic to have in school, as it makes for great educational opportunities.
“We definitely tap into that curiosity,” Maxwell said. “But we are also just aware that curiosity can lead them down some dangerous roads if we’re not helping to help guide them through that.”