Millions of people watch YouTube and other social media videos. There’s everything from music to medical procedures, comedy clips and cooking shows – you name it and there’s a video for it.
There are also videos showing teens and pre-teens choking each other and beating each other to a bloody pulp. These are videos that encourage dangerous and sometimes deadly games. It appears the more outrageous you can be, the bigger audience you’ll have. Unfortunately a lot of kids end up in emergency rooms or worse, dead.
Last week a 15-year-old boy died while copying a YouTube video he and his friends had seen. While standing, he passed out, and fell forward crashing into an empty drinking glass. His collarbone broke the glass and a shard sliced through his interior and exterior jugular vein. He died shortly after arriving at the hospital. It’s called the choking game.
The asphyxiation-to- get-high videos are popular with young adults, teens and even preteens.
Other popular “games” include jumping off a moving vehicle, salt and ice, extreme fighting, the cinnamon challenge and hitting someone over the head with a folding chair.
Dr. Thomas Abramo, the chief of pediatric emergency medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said he sees all of it in his ER. Although teens have acted on risky behavior fads throughout his 30-year career, he said he's seeing trends catch on faster than ever before, and he thinks it's because of YouTube and social media.
"If you get one kid doing it, you tend to see more kids doing it," said Abramo, who said two of his patients have died playing the choking game. "The spread of the event is definitely faster."
One challenge that scares Abramo involves being hit on the head with a bench or a folding chair to "see if you can take it," he said. A lot of the time, they can't.
"Fractures, concussions, lacerations," Abramo said. "Just the things you would think would happen."
"Once you see some of these videos, you go, 'Oh my God,'" the doctor said. The "Darwin award" videos, which involve varying dangerous challenges, are the worst he's seen. "Survival of the stupidest. I can't believe it happens. It defies logic," Abramo said.
YouTube says its guidelines prohibit videos that encourage dangerous behaviors, but they depend on viewers to flag objectionable posts before they are removed.
"We count on our users to flag content they believe violates the rules," a YouTube spokesman said. "We review flagged videos around the clock and remove all those that violate our policies."
That policy doesn’t seem to be working very well because there are plenty of these videos to watch.
Dr. Alan Hilfer, a child psychologist at Maimonides Medical Center, said he thinks the existing videos validate risky behavior for teens and give them a way to get notoriety if they post a video. He said he hears a lot about YouTube's amateur ultimate fighting videos, which show teen fights with are no rules -- just bare knuckles.
Videos of kids self-mutilating and encouraging eating disorders are also being posted on social media sites.
However, Dr. Carol Bernstein, a psychiatry professor at New York University's Langone Medical Center, said she doesn't think YouTube alone is to blame for teens engaging in challenges that could seriously injure them because many factors are involved. She said other environmental factors, physiology, and temperament contribute to a child's decision to emulate a video.
"Stress here should be on knowing our children, watching behaviors and having conversations with them," Bernstein said. "There's no substitute for parents and teachers who are engaging with their kids in general."
Many parents don’t know that their kids are acting out these videos until their child is injured. But not all parents are unaware. A mother in St. Louis was arrested after posting a video of her young children beating each other. You could hear her egging them on in the background. Fortunately she’s the exception rather than the rule.
Most parents are concerned about their kids doing drugs or drinking alcohol but they should add dangerous games to the list of topics to talk to their kids about.
"Adolescence is, developmentally, a time when young people experiment with cigarettes and other behaviors that aren't so smart for their health," says John Santelli, MD, MPH, president of the American Society of Adolescent Health and a Columbia University pediatrics professor. "Some of the consequences can be pretty tragic with these dangerous games."
Webmd.com provides a list of the “7 Dangerous Games Parents Must Know About” as well as tips for how parents can approach their kids about the subject.
Keep the lines of communication open and talk to your child about what videos he or she and their friends are watching. Ask them what they like about the videos to get a feel for what excites them.
Experts suggest that you know what websites your kids are viewing and discuss stories that feature kids who have gotten hurt carrying out these types of games. Ask them what they think about this kind of behavior and listen carefully to what they say. Their answers may surprise you.
Make it a point to learn about these dangerous games. You can’t protect your child from everything that our high-tech society is throwing at them, but understanding what is going on in their teen and pre-teen world can help you be aware of what may be trying to influence them. That’s a start.