LOS ANGELES (Circa) -- Judy Rogg never thought she would lose her son. No mother does. But she especially never thought she would lose him the way she did.
“The police came up to the hospital that night. He was on life support for 24 hours, and they said, ‘This was not a suicide. This was the ‘choking game,'" recalls Rogg, 67.
Erik Robinson was 12 years old when he wrapped a rope around his neck and hung it from a bar in his house. He wasn't trying to commit suicide, according to the authorities. This was part of a new game students at his school were playing to get the feeling of lightheaded-ness and euphoria that comes after temporarily cutting off circulation to the brain.
"I missed him by a few minutes," said Rogg. She still remembers racing home from work after her son didn't pick up repeated calls. Upon entering, she remembers a cup of hot chocolate on the table. It had just been made. She walked in on her son's body, unresponsive.
This was not a suicide. This was the "choking game."
She's not alone in her grief. From 1995 to 2007, at least 82 kids in the U.S. lost their lives to the choking game, according to the Centers for Disease Control. They've since stopped keeping track of choking game-related deaths. What we do know is that from 2000 to 2015, about 1,400 kids and teens have died from accidental hanging or strangulation. For Judy Rogg, that number is terrifying.
“They need to understand the dangers in away that doesn’t make them curious about it, and in a way that their brains will understand," said Rogg.
That's why Rogg started Erik's Cause, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness of this and other life-threatening games kids are playing. Through that, she's launched a training module for schools. It teaches middle- and high-schoolers about the physical dangers of the choking game. So far it's in one school district in Utah, where multiple students died, and at a private school in New Jersey.
"We also stress how to say no to peer pressure with some real specifics," said Rogg.
"Popularity" has always been a currency among kids growing up.
Rogg says social media has only made the deadly game more popular and accessible to students, and experts agree.
Julie Albright is a digital sociologist and author of the forthcoming book, "Left to Their Own Devices: How Digital Natives Are reshaping the American Dream."
"'Popularity' has always been a currency among kids growing up," says Albright. "Kids could always name the most popular kid in their class or school. Now, the sphere has widened beyond the schoolyard—to the entire globe watching and judging one another on social media. To stand out —and to 'go viral'— one’s videos must be more and more extreme. Kids want to be cool, to be part of the crowd, to fit in. This drive has meant they are trying to fit in by keeping up with viral challenges which have gotten more extreme and more destructive—such as setting oneself on fire or causing freezer burns to the skin."
Not all participants publish videos of their "challenge" online, but a lot of them do, or they find a way to record it and share it with friends.
"If you’re looking at the hashtags like #passoutchallenge and #chokinggame, they suggest that discussions of this behavior may occur in an echo chamber on Twitter, in which ideas and beliefs are amplified by those in their own network, which could normalize this type of behavior," says Jon-Atrick Allem, a research scientist at the University of Southern California.
It will be eight years since Erik passed away next month, and still, there are how-to videos starring giggly kids and teens popping up on YouTube every week. Rogg hopes Erik's Cause stops those, too.
"I lost my legacy, so [Erik's Cause] has become, in a sense, my baby to tend to. He wanted to go into the military and be of service. He’s being of service in another way," says Rogg of her son, Erik. "I don’t want any other parent or any other community to have to bear this kind of loss, and they are still happening."
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