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Risky 'choking game' crops up at South Eugene.

Byline: Susan Palmer The Register-Guard

Pockets of students at South Eugene High School are experimenting with an old and dangerous game: choking themselves for the brief disorienting thrill that some say going unconscious provides.

Principal Randy Bernstein informed parents in a weekly electronic newsletter that goes out to about 1,000 subscribers on Monday that the trend had cropped up at the school.

Known most commonly as the choking game, it involves cutting off breathing until someone passes out. In some versions, kids do it to each other. In others, they choke themselves.

Kids - more commonly middle school students - around the world have experimented with self-asphyxiation for years, with sometimes deadly results.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that from 1995 to 2007, 82 children from ages 6 to 19 died while playing the game alone or with others. Nonprofit groups that have sprung up to spread the word about the dangers say the numbers probably are much higher because the deaths are often reported as suicides.

Death isn't the only result. Some youth have lapsed into permanent comas after cutting off the oxygen to their brains.

Three South Eugene freshmen, who agreed to talk about the local trend on the condition that their names not be used, said that all of them had seen students try it in recent weeks and that two of them had done it themselves.

The students who tried it - both 15-year-old boys - said they had done it more than once, despite having heard from friends that some kids have died in the attempt to get high by strangling themselves.

One, a lanky dark-haired young man with an easy smile, said that he fell over backwards and bit his tongue when he did it.

"My tongue was bleeding, and it hurt a lot," he said.

The second time he tried it, he said he felt the disorienting effects.

The other student, a compactly built blond boy, said he asked a friend to stand behind him and catch him when he fell.

He came to lying on top of his friend.

"I was a dead weight. I crushed him," he said.

The third time he tried it, he was so disoriented after regaining consciousness that he didn't know what day or hour it was, a scary feeling that convinced him he shouldn't try it again.

The third student, a 15-year-old girl, said she had not choked herself but that pretty much all of her friends had done it.

"They get really, really light-headed," she said.

The girl said she didn't want to do it because of her goal of being a scientist or a medical doctor.

"I like getting good grades," she said. She speculated that cutting off oxygen to the brain even for a brief period would kill thousands of brain cells.

Both boys said they suspected their parents knew they were experimenting with it. The lanky one said his mother had confronted him about it recently, perhaps because of the video a friend shot showing him participating.

The blond student said his parents had a kind of intuition about things and that after he finished a phone conversation with a friend about it, his mom said: "So, are you talking about the passing out game?"

A study at a Texas university published last month found that 16 percent of students had tried self-asphyxiation, and that 90 percent of them had learned about it from friends. Glen Kercher of the Crime Victims' Institute at Sam Houston State University conducted the research.

Information on the Internet, much of it from YouTube videos, makes it easy for kids to share information. Research published in the academic journal Clinical Pediatrics in 2010 found 65 YouTube videos that showed the self-asphyxiation.

In 55 percent of the videos, the participants choked to the point that they experienced seizures, jerking convulsively on the ground. The videos were collectively viewed almost 200,000 times, researchers said.

In Oregon, a 2009 statewide survey of 11th-graders conducted by the state's Public Health Division found that 34 percent of them had heard of someone participating in self-asphyxiation and that 7 percent had tried it themselves.

Oregon researchers also asked the question of eighth-graders in the annual health surveys because the activity seems to be more common among young teens than older ones, according to Robert Nystrom, adolescent health section manager with the Oregon Public Health Division.

"It peaks in the younger years and then tapers off," Nystrom said. In 2009, almost 24 percent of eighth-graders said they had heard of someone participating and 6 percent said they had tried it.

The state is still analyzing information from its 2011 surveys, which included questions about whether students are doing this alone or in groups, Nystrom said.

Students who do it alone may be at a greater risk, Nystrom said. If they pass out and the rope or belt they are using to choke themselves doesn't loosen, they suffocate and die.

Bernstein isn't sure how widespread the activity is at South. In a quick check with students in the cafeteria on Tuesday, he found three or four tables of students who had never heard of it, one table of students who had just heard about it from a teacher warning them of the risks, and another table where everyone knew about it.

Bernstein wants parents and teachers talking about the dangers with students, while recognizing that such conversations might also serve to entice some kids.

"We are trying to be proactive," he said. "When we hear these things, we want to make sure our kids stay healthy and safe and make the right decisions."

The risk of death was not enough to deter the two South freshmen.

Bernstein, who sat in on The Register-Guard interview with the students, didn't lecture them as they shared their experiences, but he did tell them that he would be calling their parents.

"We like you guys alive and healthy," he told them. "I've been in this business a long time and seen too many kids die doing stupid things."


Some indications a teen may be playing "the choking game"

Physical: Frequent headaches, bloodshot eyes, inexplicable bruising or red marks around the neck, disorientation/grogginess after being alone

Environmental: Belts, ties, ropes on doorknobs or bedposts
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Title Annotation:Local News; Parents of high school students are warned that the practice of self-asphyxiation can bring deadly results
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Feb 15, 2012
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