It goes by a number of names, ranging from the innocuous - Space Monkey and Funky Chicken - to the downright macabre: Gasp and Suffocation. But, if you hear your child or one of their friends talking about "The Choking Game," school officials want you to know one important fact.
It's not a game.
"No one really knows how long it's been going on, but it's been a long time. It's definitely not something new," Aaron Nack, president of an organization called Games Adolescents Shouldn't Play. "I'm 35 years old, and when I was in middle school, I remember the kids were talking about it back then."
The goal is, purportedly, an amazing high that doesn't require the use of drugs or inhalants to achieve. What many participants don't know is that even if they survive the act that creates the high, they've done irreversible damage to their bodies.
The high lasts all of 30 seconds. But the damage it causes will last a lifetime.
Autoasphyxia or self-strangulation is the act of cutting off the flow of blood to one's brain for as long as possible without passing out. This is done by using one's hands or some sort of ligature to cut off blood flow through the Carotid arteries.
Lake County (Ill.) coroner Dr. Richard Keller, a national opponent of "The Choking Game," said brain cells cannot store oxygen like other types of cells and can survive only a matter of minutes without a continuous supply of oxygen. Brain cells shut down, or "turn off" just before they die, which causes a loss of consciousness.
In essence, the "high" participants experience from "The Choking Game" is the warning sign from the brain that it has been depleted of oxygen, a built-in self-preservation instinct in humans. But, in reality, even the "winners" in the "game" end up losing.
"Dead brain cells do not come back. They do not re-grow," Keller said. "A bit more pressure on the neck shuts off carotid arterial blood flow into the brain, cutting off the flow of oxygenated blood into the brain. Quickly, within a very few short moments, the brain shuts down and dies without the continuous flow of blood and oxygen into the brain."
Within three minutes without oxygen to the brain, a person will suffer noticeable brain damage. Between four and five minutes, a person will die. Some victims of the "game" were alone for as little as 15 minutes before someone found them, and it was already too late.
Stephen Stefkovich, 14, of Lincoln is among those who have been documented as deaths by "The Choking Game" since 2005. The problem has spread to smaller, rural communities, as well. Two young males are also reported to have accidentally taken their own lives in Hastings and Sterling.
And, in rural western Iowa, there's the story of 12-year-old Desiree Prater.
She lived in Red Oak in southwest Iowa and was a fifth grader in nearby Elliott. She loved drawing, fishing and her small menagerie of animals, which included chickens, rabbits and even peacocks. But, on Saturday, April 2, 2005, her parents found her hanging from the rafters of a barn on the family farm.
She was just one more tragic case of the "game" going too far.
And, now, there are reports of "The Choking Game" showing up in a Dallas County, Iowa, school. In the most recent Mustang Monthly newsletter, Dallas Center-Grimes superintendent Gary Sinclair told parents some students in the district had been engaged in the deadly activity.
"We were made aware by a student that at least a few students were trying the game," he said. "Due to the potential danger, we used the newsletter to inform parents."
Superintendents in the other Dallas County-area districts were asked if they were aware of any reports among their student populations. West Central Valley, Waukee and Adel-DeSoto-Minburn all reported back that they were not aware of any students engaging in the problem.
"Although it is difficult to know the level of students trying this game, I would assume our student involvement would be similar to most schools," Sinclair added. "Parents being informed and aware of this should make a difference."
Learning how to "play the game" isn't difficult, particularly since the advent of the Internet.
Using the keyword "Choking Game," one can find dozens of videos depicting the dangerous game in amongst the hundreds of videos warning of its dangers on YouTube. It took Dallas County News, Inc. less than five minutes to find a video of a young man giving himself a "California High" on the popular video-sharing web site.
The same user had videos depicting multiple variations of the "game" in which friends basically strangulating each other for a high.
The "rush" caused by the "game" can become addictive, as well, which creates a doubly dangerous situation for youth. Nack said "The Choking Game" often starts out as a social game, but can quickly become a solitary obsession that ends in a tragic death.
"The biggest hurdle we find ourselves dealing with is the 'it isn't happening here,' or, 'it can't happen here' arguments," Nack said. "But, if the kids can find it easily on YouTube and the Internet, you know it can happen anywhere - that argument just fades away."
Coming up with statistics to reinforce his argument is just as difficult. Oftentimes, victims of "The Choking Game" are labeled as child suicides.
But, when the child's actions leading up to their deaths don't add up to someone who would likely take his or her own life, Nack said it's important to press law enforcement to investigate further in the hopes of preventing more needless deaths. For him, the problem is personal.
"My god-son, Kyle McCarthy, was a victim of the game. His death was initially ruled a suicide, but it just didn't add up," he said. "So, we did some research and found out about this game. We were able to convince the police to look into it, and sure enough, they found out a lot of people had been playing it."
He launched the non-profit group Stop The Choking Game Association in 2005 with the hope of spreading the word and educating parents, teachers, law enforcement and coroners. Linking up with other likeminded groups, however, he soon formed GASP.
"Our overriding mission is to educate the general public… but, it's difficult to know where or how to educate them," he said. "We're constantly met with, 'We don't have that here,' or 'We don't want to put ideas in their heads.'"
The most common "players" are boys and girls ages 9-16. They tend to be students who are high achievers in academics and/or extracurricular activities who don't want to risk getting caught with illicit drug use. GASP estimates 250-1,000 young people die each year as a result of "The Choking Game."
"This affects everyone. Simply saying, 'It doesn't or won't happen here' is not going to cut it. That's just sticking our heads in the sand, and where is it going to get us?" Nack said. "Does that mean we should stop talking about drugs, stop talking about alcohol, in our schools?"
Parents are encouraged to be proactive about "The Choking Game" and to talk about it with their children. In the event the game is discovered in your school, district officials should be notified immediately. Warning signs of the "game" include:
suspicious marks on the side of the neck
changes in personality, particularly agitation or aggression
straps, belts or ropes lying in unusual places around the youth
bloodshot eyes or noticeable signs of eye stress
questions about strangulation or blood loss to the brain
loud thuds coming from the bedroom
GASP also offers a wealth of information for people who want to become involved in the fight against "The Choking Game." Materials for teachers and parents can be found at www.stop-the-choking-game.org online. Additional resources can be requested from the non-profit, which runs entirely on donations.
Educating youth is the most important weapon, Nack said.
"Most children have no concept of their own mortality. They truly believe nothing can hurt them," he added. "My god-son was very risk-averse. I honestly believe that if he knew that what he was doing could kill him, he never would have attempted it, and I think that's true for a lot of kids."