A 12-year-old died last week after playing the "choking game," according to Santa Monica police—the latest in a long string of deaths apparently resulting from adolescent self-asphyxiation. What is going on with kids these days?
The Santa Monica middle schooler was taken off of life support a week ago after spending two days in a coma brought about by tying a rope to his neck and cutting off his oxygen. Cops are saying he was playing "the choking game," also known as "funky chicken," a dangerous and, apparently, weirdly popular activity:
Two years ago the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 82 deaths attributable to the choking game and related activities. This year the C.D.C. released the results of the first statewide survey and found that one in three eighth graders in Oregon had heard of the choking game, while more than one in 20 had participated.
This isn't news, really: A lot of us did something like this in middle school or high school. I remember calling it "Blackout": Essentially, the "player" would hyperventilate for thirty seconds, and then have a friend shove him (it was almost always a him) in the chest, hard, so that he'd faint. Like a lot of stuff we all do when we're that age, "Blackout" was pretty dumb, and I feel lucky that no one I know messed themselves up playing it.
So when we're talking about this, we should remember that the "choking game" isn't a recently-discovered thing. It's been a well-known fact to most people throughout human history that blocking oxygen from your brain can produce a sense of euphoria.
What is new is the sexy name and its implication of a casual, flirtatious relationship with death. We've collapsed a huge range of behaviors and activities into a single, scary phenomenon sweeping the country. With the "choking game," it's not that we have kids dying because they were experimenting with asphyxiation in a variety of dangerous but not exactly abnormal ways, it's that they were participating in a deadly new trend.
Do the stats bear out the hysteria? The 82 deaths figure that the CDC came up with isn't wrong, necessarily, but it's a tally based on news reporting, not medical reports. The fact that more than one in 20 Oregon eighth-graders have "participated" in the "choking game" is definitely more troubling, and likely speaks to a need to address certain basic "don't-be-an-idiot" concerns with adolescents—which we should be doing anyway. But it's not—yet—evidence that we're dealing with a brand-new, vastly more fucked-up thing.