The choking game

2008-04-19 00:00

Although largely seen as a teenage prank, the often-lethal choking game is in fact a far more widespread and sophisticated activity.

Schools, psychologists and parents are not taking the “choking game” that is being played by adolescents seriously or they are just not aware of it.

Although warning bells have rung when fatalities of the game are reported in the press, not enough has been done to bring awareness of this activity, say psychologists.

“This is a sophisticated pathological activity, which is packaged in a way that it stays under the radar,” said a Hilton psychologist, who asked not to be named for professional reasons. “There simply are no markers for it, so it is difficult for anyone to pick up the problem.”

Adolescents playing the game are “generally high-achieving in academics, activities and sports, and don’t want to risk getting caught with drugs or alcohol,” choking awareness group Gasp says on their website.

A private school counselor who also wanted to remain anonymous said she has heard of the choking game, but said schools are not taking it seriously. She said although there haven’t been that many reported incidents, “children don’t talk about it”.

“I think it is happening mostly amongst pupils in grade eight and nine, especially amongst children who come from wealthy families,” she said. “Part of the reason they play these games is to discover their identity by testing their body’s boundaries.”

A man in his twenties, Brian *, told Weekend Witness that when his group of friends tried it at school it was because they were bored, but that it “was not an addictive compulsion”.

The Hilton psychologist said boredom might be a strong cause of the game being played.

“Teenagers are growing up in a banal existence of technology and entertainment,” he said. “Kids from successful families gravitate toward extreme experiences to mimic hardships that they would not otherwise experience.”

“Teenagers are living in a world void of suffering and feel that their existence is purely decorative.”

“I only participated in it once, and after finding that it didn’t work, possibly expecting too much, or possibly not holding to a degree of sufficient suffocation, I left the idea alone,” Brian said.

“Our game did have a slight twist to it, where one would be strangled by someone for an extended period of time. The participant then had to stand up abruptly. This would cause you to faint.”

University of KwaZulu-Natal neuro-pyschologist Douglas Mansfield said playing the game even once is extremely dangerous. “Hypoxia occurs when the brain is deprived of oxygen and causes instant brain damage,” he said. “People who have played this game will have long term difficulties.”

Playing the game will only make it harder for you to stop, which is a similar consequence of drug or alcohol abuse. “The brain cells that help you decide what is right and wrong are the ones getting targeted and so each time you kill those cells, your decision-making capabilities become more impaired.”

Pietermaritzburg Lifeline and Rape Crisis director Debbie Harrison said she has not come across the problem, but said children are rebelling in far more extreme ways than ever before. “Anything that kids are doing under 18 that is life threatening should be taken very seriously.”

Harrison said if people who are playing the game would like to speak to a professional about their problem, they should phone their helpdesk at 033 394 4444.

The Hilton psychologist said specialists in his field are uninitiated in the choking game. “We need to up our game and we need to know that this game is out there.”

* Not his real name.

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