News Analysis

Thursday 21 August 2014

David Coleman: 'Choking game' is here – and parents must be ready to tackle it head on

Published 11/10/2013 | 05:00

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Many parents will have read the headline "Teen boy almost dies from 'choking game'" with equal parts terror and confusion. Their terror is likely to arise from the notion that any game could lead to near death, while their confusion probably arises from their lack of knowledge about what is a 'choking game'.

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The 'choking game', as it is called, has come from America, via the UK. It has several different names. It can also be called the "pass-out game", "space monkey", "purple hazing", "dream game" and "American dream".

In reality, it is anything but a game. It is a Russian-roulette style gamble between getting a naturally created high and dying or causing brain injury.

In the most common version of the 'game', teenagers (and sometimes children) use a strap of some kind wrapped around their necks to temporarily cut blood flow to their brain. They may tie this strap or ligature themselves or may get someone else to do it.

Another variation of the game involves holding your breath and getting punched in the chest until you black out. Yet another version involves bending over and trying to induce hyperventilation by taking deep breaths followed by someone giving them a "bear hug".

Regardless of the method, the goal is always the same – cut off your oxygen until you pass out. Asphyxiation like this produces an adrenaline rush and sensation of being high. It is often described as a "tingly" or "floating" feeling. A second high is produced when the pressure is released and oxygen rushes back to the brain.

Its attractiveness to younger teenagers comes from the fact that it is promoted among themselves as a way of getting a 'natural' high without using illegal drugs or alcohol. So for young teens who may be scared to risk the consequences of trying drugs, this can seem like a viable option to get a buzz.

It is estimated, in the States, that 20pc of teenagers and preteens will play this 'game'. Sometimes it is played in groups and sometimes teenagers may try it alone. Boys and girls are equally likely to try it.

The 'game' has been around in Ireland for years. I have written about it in my books before. The 'rules' are easily available on the internet.

While many teenagers may be aware of the purported thrill of the highs of the 'game', very few will be aware of the real and tragic dangers. Some youngsters have choked to death. Reports in the US suggest that the majority of deaths have occurred among boys in the 11-13 year age group who have tried it alone.

However, it only takes three minutes of oxygen starvation for the brain to develop irreversible damage. Any activity that deprives the brain of oxygen has the potential to cause moderate to serious brain cell death, leading to permanent loss of neurological function.

Sometimes the problems can be minor, like a flushed face, headaches, bloodshot eyes, loss of concentration, slurred speech, agitation, and aggression. However, there can also be major health problems – neuro-muscular problems, memory problems, coma, concussion, fractures, as well as permanent neurological disabilities.

Occasionally this self-choking behaviour can be confused with other forms of self-harm, or even as a suicide attempt. However, the core premise of teenagers' behaviour in this instance is to get a naturally created chemical high.

The tragic case of a young teenage boy, which has been reported in the news, has brought the dangers of this 'game' back into sharp focus. Now, again, we parents have both an opportunity and a responsibility to talk about it with our own children.

I think it is best to raise the topic directly and to explain what you now know about the 'choking game'. Your aim is not to try to accuse your child of playing it, or even to determine if they have played it. You don't want them to be resistant to what you say because they may feel accused.

Your aim is to leave them in no doubt about the very real dangers of trying to black out, even just once. The more knowledge you show about the specifics of the 'game', the better. It will help if you can demonstrate that you can understand the likely pressure that may be out there among their peer-group to play it.

Perhaps you may discover, in conversation, that the 'choking game' is doing the rounds in your neighbourhood or in your son or daughter's school. If so, then spread the word among the adults too. Alert the school authorities if you believe it is happening there.

The more we adults are aware and alert to the problem, the greater our chances of protecting our children and teenagers from the terrible risks that the 'choking game' presents.

David Coleman is a clinical psychologist

Irish Independent

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