In a recent post, I wrote about my dislike of people taking risks with their lives because there exists an audience for it, and how this can lead to tragedy. It is bad enough when this happens to adults who have trained for the act and take precautions. They are taking calculated risks and even making a living from doing so. But the problem is that in an era of social media, we find young people taking dangerous risks and streaming their efforts in return for the remote possibility of becoming famous, however fleetingly, and without thinking things through or having any backup plan if things should go wrong.
The phenomenon of ‘TikTok’ challenges, where someone comes up with some risky action and others take up the challenge and pass it on, have resulted in numerous cases of this, the more famous ones being the ice bucket challenge and the milk crate challenge, the latter leading to some serious injuries.
But now comes the sad story of two young girls who died in 2021 reportedly because of a ‘blackout challenge’ that involved choking oneself until one passes out.
One victim, eight-year-old Lalani Erika Renee Walton of Temple, Texas, is described as “an extremely sweet and outgoing young girl” who “loved dressing up as a princess and playing with makeup”. She died on 15 July 2021 in what police determined was “a direct result of attempting TikTok’s ‘Blackout Challenge’”, according to the complaint.
Lalani had received a phone for her eighth birthday in April 2021 and “quickly became addicted to watching TikTok videos”, the complaint said. She often posted videos of herself singing and dancing, in hopes of becoming “TikTok famous”.
In July 2021, her family began noticing bruising on Lalani’s neck, which she explained away as an accident. Unbeknown to them, she had begun participating in the blackout challenge, which had first showed up on her feed weeks before.
The other victim named in the suit, nine-year-old Arriani Jaileen Arroyo of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, received a phone when she was seven years old and used TikTok multiple times a day, according to the complaint. She “gradually became obsessive” about posting dance videos on TikTok and became “addicted” to the app.
In January 2021, Arriani’s family discussed with her an incident of a young TikTok user dying as the result of a challenge, but the Arriani assured them she would never participate in dangerous videos.
However, on 26 February 2021 she was found not breathing by her five-year-old brother. She was rushed to a local hospital but ultimately taken off life support.
There are so many disturbing things about these two tragedies. One is that children as young as seven years old not only aspire to be famous now, not in the future, but think that they have a realistic chance of succeeding because they have seen others become so on social media. Another is that social media companies like TikTok and and Facebook make more money the greater the engagement of their users and their algorithms promote these challenges, especially to young impressionable minds. The third is that cell phones are now seen as obligatory items and children that young are given their own and allowed to spend so much time on them.
Cell phones can be a tremendous convenience and are now ubiquitous. They are even seen as a necessity and there is tremendous peer pressure for younger and younger children to have them. It seems like parents are in a very difficult situation. A parent who does not give their child a phone might have their children being subject to social ostracism, never a pleasant thing for young people. There are also situations where children may need to have them because of family circumstances or for safety reasons. But once you give them one, it becomes hard to control what they do with it. You have essentially handed your children over to social media companies who do not give a damn about their welfare but want to make as much money from them as possible.
One solution may be to give children phones that can only make phone calls or send texts, like the old flip phones. That would take care of the safety needs. It would not solve the peer pressure problem of children competing with one another to have the latest models with all the bells and whistles.
It isn’t phones per se. In Israel in the 1980s and 1990s kids were getting killed in a ‘game’ known as ‘street roulette’ (like Russian roulette, but with traffic serving as the loaded gun) -- someone would steal another kid’s backpack and toss it into the street, the victim would run into the street to retrieve their property. If one acted relatively safely they’d be considered ‘losers’ among their friends, while those that ran into the street while traffic was particularly heavy and fast gained social standing. Other risky ‘games’ of the time were contests of who can lean the farthest out of a window or various strangulation ‘contests’. The phones bring the phenomenon everywhere and amplify the audience, but these things have been around long before.
As for old-fashioned phones -- I wonder if it is still possible to get service for those. The carrier that served my family’s flip phones stopped supporting them.
Yes, the first mistake made by these and other parents lies in giving such young children smart phones. Even those parents that aren’t aware of the addictive nature of at-your-fingertips entertainment for children should at least have balked at the risk of breakage; children aren’t known for being good with things that are both delicate and expensive. A dumb phone will easily suffice, just populate it with necessary phone numbers and the child will do fine.
Anat, your parent’s old phones were probably on 2G or 3G when they were switched off, but there are dumb phones made for 4G too.
Most old flip phone models stopped working when 3G was ended: you now need to have at least a 4G phone to get service. But there are still models, one is called the Light Phone, that provide only calls and texts. While I might get such a phone for, say, a ten-year-old, I don’t think that seven-year-olds need anything.
I think that while such risk-taking challenges have always been with us, the frequency of them on social media makes it more dangerous. And, all the rest of the dangers that come with social media compound it.
My sister-in-law was seen as a model of strictness because she made her teenage kids give her their phones when they went to bed. They didn’t even want to sleep without them.
Except many people will be getting handsets either free or heavily subsidised on their contracts, with regular replacements. So at least the first or second time, that might not be of any concern.
And depending on the phone they can be surprisingly rugged. (I remember meeting one phone engineer who invited us to play football with his phone round the pub to show off how scratch resistant it was…) So they might survive longer than you might think on that front.
And if they’re *that* addicted to them you might be surprised by just how careful they suddenly become with their precious, even if they treat other important things too casually.
My coworker gave smartphones to his 5-year-old and 3-year-old, using that stupid excuse that it’s “for their safety”. I pointed out that the 3-year-old wasn’t going to be driving herself to school or running to the grocery store for milk by herself, and he admitted it was so the kids could watch videos. Instead of parenting their kids, people are giving them phones so they can entertain themselves.
Whatever this current generation is called, they’ve never once had to use their brains to entertain themselves. They’re on the phones in the grocery store, in the car, hanging around the house…and as Mano provided, children too young to be fully aware of consequences are doing stupid things trying to be TikTok “stars”.
The blackout challenge sounds very similar to a “game” or dare we used to play when I was about 8 or 9 in the early 80’s. You would have a couple of your friends push against your chest until you fainted. You learned of these dares by word of mouth, no need for smartphones.