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Should TikTok be held responsible for lethal 'challenges'? Archie Battersbee's mom blames platform

Archie Battersbee was declared brain dead after collapsing at home
Hollie Dance (L) found her son Archie Battersbee (R) with a cord wrapped around his neck (Daily Mail screenshot and Teesside Live/Facebook)
Hollie Dance (L) found her son Archie Battersbee (R) with a cord wrapped around his neck (Daily Mail screenshot and Teesside Live/Facebook)

TikTok has become one of the most favored social media platforms for young children and teenagers these days since its global launch in 2017. While innocent dance and music videos ruled the platform in the beginning, dangerous challenges eventually began to pick up traction on the platform as they got more views. One horrifying exmple of what these perilous challenges can result in is the case of 12-year-old Archie Battersbee, who was declared brain dead after collapsing at home and was found by his mother with ligature marks on his body. 

Archie's mother Hollie Dance believes her son may have been trying the ‘blackout’ challenge before he was found unconscious. The online craze encourages users to choke themselves out until they are unconscious. Archie's mother found him with a cord wrapped around his neck. TikTok, however, has claimed that this was never a trend on its platform and it "‘removes any contact that promotes dangerous behaviour that could cause harm." Archie’s parents have now lost their Supreme Court attempt to stop doctors from withdrawing his life support. 


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Archie's case is one among several other tragedies that have stemmed from such online challenges. Like Hollie, the families of two young girls in the in the US have also slammed the platform and even brought a lawsuit against TikTok, claiming its "dangerous" algorithms were responsible for their children's deaths. Their daughters, aged eight and nine, died of strangulation last year, again from the same 'blackout' challenge. This challenge has been linked to the deaths of at least five other children aged ten to 14 in Italy, Australia and the US.

The 'blackout' challenge is not the only dangerous trend on TikTok. A socket challenge encourages users to partially pull out a phone charger from a socket and drop a penny on the exposed prongs, leading to a shower of sparks. In the 'salt-and-ice' challenge, users pour salt on their skin and cover it in ice, which leads to second-degree burns and frostbite. There is another trend called the 'nutmeg challenge' in which participants consume ground nutmeg to feel ‘high’. Other side-effects could include raised heart rate, breathing difficulties and even seizures in some cases. The Benadryl challenge encourages users to consume the antihistamine drug, which can cause seizures and cardiac arrest. 

Among multiple victims of such challenges is Sarah, Jane Platt’s daughter, who was left with lasting health problems after she tried the ‘skullbreaker challenge’, which involves two people kicking a victim’s legs from under them as they jump in the air. This causes them to land flat on their back on the ground, and their head to bang. Sarah, 15, tried the challenge and has been left with a condition that she will have to monitor all her life. "I’d barely heard of TikTok. Then I walked through the double doors and my daughter was lying on a trolley with tape round her head and chin and I just thought, “Oh my God”," Sarah's mother Jane said, according to the Daily Mail. Sarah was eventually diagnosed with Postural Tachycardia Syndrome (PoTS), which leads to her heart rate increasing abnormally when she sits or stands up. "I don’t mind the dancing and normal things kids do, but the skullbreaker? That is utter madness," Jane said of the lethTikTok.

Anyone who searches for the skullbreaker or blackout challenge on TikTok today is directed to a page that informs them about how to assess challenges, with warnings. However, the recent lawsuits that the parents of the two girls filed say that the app’s algorithm pushed the challenge onto the girls’ ‘For You’ page, which offers reccomended content. "This disturbing “challenge”, which people seem to learn about from sources other than TikTok, long predates our platform and has never been a TikTok trend," TikTok has said.

Social media industry analyst Matt Navarra says, "TikTok is particularly powerful because the way its algorithm works is somewhat different from other social media platforms like Meta or Instagram. Over a short period of time, the platform will learn quickly what the i­ndividual will want to see. It will feed more and more of that stuff. It means some trends can spread very quickly, and that’s what seems to be behind these challenges. Everybody is talking about it and it’s being shared in private messages or other apps. It will quite quickly become viral, and that’s how it comes on your feed."

"We are in schools every day and my anxiety levels are going up," said former police officers John Staines, who runs training sessions for children, teachers and parents as part of their eSafety Training business. "We’ve just been with a group of Year Five and Six children (aged nine to 11) and probably 75 per cent of them had seen challenges that involved putting things over your head or round your neck, or holding your breath. Most of them had seen challenges that meant putting a bag over your head."

"It’s a nightmare. In the past three weeks we have had two kids in Year Two (aged six to seven) speaking about really extreme challenges," Staines added. "First there was a little girl talking about the coat hanger challenge, where you put a coat hanger on your head and your head automatically moves left or right, which is obviously total nonsense. Two weeks ago, we were asked to speak to a seven-year-old boy after one of our sessions. He had been doing the blackout challenge by putting a bag over his head. This morning we asked a class: if you saw the coat hanger challenge over someone’s shoulder on a screen and there was a coat hanger in the room, would you copy it? Everyone said yes. We are really worried about it. Little kids have no sense of fear. They see something online and copy it."

Meanwhile, TikTok has said that it is testing ways to avoid recommending similar content. "Nothing is more important to us than the safety and wellbeing of our community, especially our younger community members. Our community guidelines make clear that we do not tolerate content that promotes dangerous acts that may lead to harm," a spokesperson said. "We have taken a series of proactive steps to protect our users and to educate them on the potential dangers of online challenges, including an in-app guide, developed with leading youth safety experts."