16 April 2010

The choking game

What’s the scariest thing your child could be addicted to? Alcohol, drugs? Think again. There’s a game that’s fatal, and your child could be playing it.

What’s the scariest thing your child could be addicted to? Alcohol, drugs? Think again. There’s a game that’s fatal, and your child could be playing it.

The “pass-out game”, “dreaming”, “space monkey”, “space cowboy” might sound innocent and harmless until you hear the more sinister names “the choking game” and “suffocation roulette.”

Although there are no statistics available, it is estimated that about 500 – 1 000 children die yearly playing this game in the US alone. It is difficult to track down the exact number as many of these cases are reported as suicides.

“As far as I am aware there are no statistics available of deaths amongst South African teenagers/adolescents who died playing the choking game, however, it is estimated that up to one third of deaths that are unexplained amongst young people and then described as suicides may be as a result of it,” says Dr Pixie du Toit, Forensic Criminologist and Head of Sinoville Crisis Centre.

What is the choking game?
The game is not new and has been passed down from generations. According to Dr du Toit in almost any group of adults, one can find someone who played this game in some form or other when they were children.

It is mostly played by teenagers, children who are not troublesome, but stable, are well-liked, active and intelligent.

The game is played by compressing the chest or squeezing the neck with the hands or a ligature device such as a rope, a cord or a belt. Another variation of the game involves hyperventilating until losing consciousness.

For older teens the game could turn sexual – this is known as hypoxyphilia. It is a form of auto-erotic asphyxia in which sexual stimulation and orgasm are heightened by the restriction of oxygen to the brain.

The experience is two-fold. The first is a feeling of light-headedness which is a result of reduced bloodflow that reduces the delivery of oxygen to the brain. The second part comes when the pressure on the chest or neck is removed. This releases a powerful rush of blocked up blood through the carotid arteries into the brain.

Why is it so dangerous?
According to experts a child who plays this game could lose consciousness within 2-4 minutes. This could lead to brain damage or even death.

Playing the game can have serious health implications: permanent and cumulative death of brain cells; the variation of blood pressure can lead to strokes, seizures, retinal damage, bruises, concussion, short term memory loss, cardiac arrest, damage to the trachea, larynx, cervical spine damage, airway obstruction by the tongue and aspiration of vomit, mucus and saliva.

Why do children play the game?
According to Dr du Toit teenagers play the game for a number of reasons: boredom, feelings of anxiety, and a desire to take risks. They also go through an auto-erotic phase where they tend towards secret sexual fantasies, and during which time normal sexual development is disrupted.

Other reasons are to achieve a ‘high’ without the use of alcohol and drugs and peer pressure.

“The choking game can be highly addictive. Some young people do it because it is ‘cool’ and risky. The pleasure derived from strangulation during sex can be physical or psychological or both, but putting them together can create the motivation for a dangerous habit,” says Dr du Toit.

Was it suicide?
According to Dr du Toit there is no evidence that it is a form of intended suicide. “These deaths usually come as a complete surprise to the family and friends of the victim. The position of the body or the presence of protective means such as padding about the neck, indicate that the death was not intended.”

Evidence that you should look out for are physiological mechanisms for obtaining or enhancing sex, a self-rescue mechanism, sexual fantasy aids, props or pornography, solitary activity and no apparent suicide intent.

What parents should know
Most parents are unaware of this game and only become aware of it when someone close to them dies or is damaged by it.

Dr du Toit advises, “If parents think their child is involved in this game, supervise them closely. Dispose of items that could be employed for this purpose and warn them about the deadliness of this activity. Check whether siblings are not also involved and parents can even consider alerting their child’s friend’s parents. It is a potentially lethal practice and parents should consider professional counselling and support for the child and the family.”

Look out for these signs:

  • Inexplicable bruising or red marks on the neck
  • Ligatures tied in strange knots found in unusual places
  • Complaints of painful headaches
  • Wear marks on furniture from previous incidents
  • Disorientation
  • Grogginess
  • Unusual need for privacy
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Changes in attitude, and increased levels of aggression

(Leandra Engelbrecht, Health24, updated April 2010)

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