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The 'Choking Game' is now the 'Blackout Challenge' on TikTok, and a boy has died

12-year-old Joshua Haileyesus was found unconscious by his twin brother after trying the "Blackout Challenge."
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/ Source: TODAY

The "Blackout Challenge," a dangerous online challenge that has been floating around on social media for years, is back in the spotlight after a 12-year-old Colorado boy spent nearly three weeks on life support before he died.

According to a GoFundMe message shared by his family, Joshua Haileyesus was discovered unconscious on March 22 after attempting the challenge. His twin brother found him and attempted to resuscitate him, according to the fundraiser site. Joshua was intubated and on life support for 19 days before he died on Saturday.

"Unbeknownst to his parents, Joshua had been playing this dangerous game completely unaware of the risks involved," the family wrote.

"Our family is devastated beyond belief by Joshua's circumstance," the family said in a later update. "We are also concerned for other families who like ourselves may not be aware of the existence of the Blackout Challenge and others like it. ... We urge the community to (spread) awareness about Joshua and the real risks involved in not having knowledge of what kinds of activities children are involved in."

What is the 'Blackout Challenge'?

The blackout "game" involves "intentionally trying to choke oneself or another person in an an effort to obtain a brief euphoric state or 'high,'" according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The line between near-choking and choking is thin, which can lead to deaths or serious injuries.

The challenge has been identified as the "Choking Game," the "Passout Challenge," the "Game of Choking," the "Fainting Game," the "Space Monkey" and more. Recently, it's resurfaced on TikTok as the "Blackout Challenge," but it has been circulating on social media platforms as far back as MySpace and has been around before that.

A 2008 study showed that "at least 82 youth have died as a result of playing" between 1995 and 2007, though the CDC noted that "researchers said the study probably underestimates the number of deaths." Most fatalities were in children between the ages of 11 and 16, with an average age of 13, and 87% of deaths occurred in male children.

"This has been a source of recreation and a very risk-taking activity for young people looking for a thrill," said Dr. Victor Fornari, director of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at North Shore-LIJ Health System in New Hyde Park, New York. "It's very dangerous and has led to serious consequences, including countless deaths."

Why do kids participate in the 'Blackout Challenge'?

Fornari told TODAY Parents that while most youths will recognize the activity as a dangerous one and choose to avoid participating in it, others may be attracted by the risk inherent in the "challenge," similar to people who decide to drive recklessly or attempt other risky behaviors.

"I think that there are many youths who are looking for thrill-seeking activities ... and I think that with what may be written on the internet and what youth may tell each other (makes it seem like) a particularly positive experience, which can be so thrilling that it's worth the risk," said Fornari, noting that the risk is never worth it.

Fornari said he would not be surprised to see instances of the "challenge" increasing during the pandemic, as "youth are increasingly limited" in social relationships and are dealing with increased stressors, which could lead them to seek out risky behavior as a form of stress relief.

How can parents protect their kids?

Fornari said that especially during the pandemic, it's "most important" that parents stay aware of their children's mental and emotional state.

"Anxious and depressed youth may be at greater risk because they may have more suicidal thoughts and may be less concerned about risk-taking behaviors," Fornari said. "Parents need to be aware that this is a serious issue and perhaps have a serious conversation."

When a student at a New Jersey school died from the "challenge" in 2017, the school district warned parents to be aware of physical warnings like bloodshot eyes, bruising around the neck and knots left in neckties, belts and ropes, and to look out for emotional signs like mood swings and disorientation after periods of solitude.

Fornari emphasized that parents should seek professional help if necessary.

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