TikTok is well-known for its popular challenges among children and teenagers. Most challenges are harmless, such as dance challenges and style transition challenges that use the same audio. Other challenges are malicious in nature, such as “devious licks,” which encourages students to steal or vandalize school property.
Even more concerning, a few other challenges have posed serious risks to the young TikTok users who have taken part in them. The “blackout challenge” is one such challenge. According to a July 2022 report from The Verge, seven children ages 8 to 14 died of strangulation after TikTok showed them videos of people attempting to choke themselves. According to lawsuits filed by the children’s parents, this is the case.
The blackout challenge is a social media dare in which users strangle themselves with a belt, purse strings, ropes, or other similar items until they pass out, then upload the resulting videos to TikTok. The challenge, however, did not begin on TikTok and is not limited to the platform.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the blackout challenge is similar to the choking game, which killed 82 children aged 6 to 19 in the United States between 1995 and 2007. (via TIME). Since the 1930s, the game has gone by various names, including “pass out challenge,” “space monkey,” and “flatliner.” Whatever name the game is given, it still challenges children to choke themselves without cutting off too much of the flow of oxygen to the brain in order to achieve a brief state of euphoria. It is now known as the blackout challenge.
The blackout challenge is especially dangerous — and fatal — because children frequently play it alone in the privacy of their own bedrooms. They’re holding their phone, a TikTok video is playing on the screen, and the camera is rolling. They don’t always rely on their friends to protect them, which makes things even more dangerous if they become unconscious.
Parents are suing TikTok and its parent company ByteDance to hold the platform responsible for their children’s deaths as a result of the virality of the blackout challenge.
The lawsuit was filed on June 30, 2022, by the parents of Lalani Walton, 8, of Temple, Texas, and Arriani Arroyo, 9, of Milwaukee, both of whom died last year while attempting the blackout challenge. TikTok, according to the parents of both girls, “specifically curated and determined that these blackout challenge videos… are appropriate and fitting for small children.”
The suit cited five other cases of children dying after participating in the blackout challenge between January and December 2021, including a 10-year-old girl in Italy (about whom Arroyo informed her parents), two 12-year-old boys in Colorado and Oklahoma, a 14-year-old boy in Australia, and Nylah Anderson, a 10-year-old girl in Pennsylvania.
In response to the aforementioned lawsuits, TikTok stated that it is implementing safety measures to prevent children from searching for blackout challenge videos. It also clarifies that the challenge was never a TikTok trend to begin with. Following the news of both lawsuits, it issued the following statement: “This disturbing ‘challenge,’ which people seem to learn about from sources other than TikTok, predates our platform and has never been a TikTok trend.” We remain vigilant in our commitment to user safety and would remove any related content immediately if discovered. Our heartfelt condolences to the family on their tragic loss.”
When TikTok users try to search for the blackout challenge, instead of related videos, a warning message appears, saying, “Some online challenges can be dangerous, disturbing, or even fabricated.” TikTok then directs users to safety resources, instructing them on how to assess challenges and warnings and encouraging them to report any potentially hazardous material they come across.
It’s not a perfect solution for ending the blackout challenge, but it does make dangerous videos more difficult to find. Nonetheless, parents are encouraged to discuss online challenges with their children, regardless of their age, and to provide guidance on which challenges are safe for them to participate in and which are not. Open communication in conjunction with risk assessment tips from TikTok work best to empower young users to make safe decisions.