'Our sons were victims of a deadly strangling craze'
Terri Judd talks to two women who want the world to know their children's fate
Published 06/02/2010 | 00:01
Tyler Mison would have turned 14 yesterday. But in September last year his stepfather Ben walked into his bedroom to find him hanging from his bunk bed.
To his mother Jo, Tyler's death was as baffling as it was devastating. She could not understand why a happy boy, who was looking forward to going back to school, could die this way. He was joining the Army Cadet Force and had talked about becoming a pilot. Just a few hours before his death he had been chatting to his grandmother on MSN, Microsoft's free instant messaging service.
It was only later that Mrs Mison realised the significance of the bloodshot eyes that Tyler had blamed on a lack of sleep and the red marks on his neck which he blamed on his siblings.
These are the tell-tale signs of a choking game, a teenage craze well-documented abroad but little known in this country until it was highlighted by The Independent last month.
Known by a variety of names from "funky chicken" to "space monkey", the "game" involves self-induced strangulation to achieve a high. Constricting the carotid artery in the neck cuts blood flow to the brain and when the pressure is released, the resulting rush of oxygen causes the high. Experts say it is prevalent among high-achieving adolescents who do not want to drink or take drugs.
It is most dangerous when children try it on their own using a ligature, and one campaign group in the US, which has been collating figures worldwide, estimates that as many as 86 young people in the UK may have died this way over the past 15 years.
Mrs Mison believes her son was a victim of the game.
"He was a happy-go-lucky lad, quite easily led but he had no problems. We couldn't understand. We went through all the scenarios. I knew he hadn't intended to do it," she said. "We need to get this out, let people know what a sick, evil thing this is – it is not a game."
Sarah Tutin lost her son to the deadly game seven weeks ago.
Jess, 17, was found hanging from the banister of his home by his step-brother on 14 December. Mrs Tutin is adamant her son did not take his own life.
"He had been delivering leaflets that day," she said. "Neighbours said he was just normal, laughing and joking. A friend phoned and he said he would come out later. We are all shocked. It is just unreal, unbelievable. I still expect him to come home.
"For a couple of months he came down the stairs with his collar zipped up to his chin. He had bloodshot eyes and a red face. We thought he was playing too many computer games, staring at the screen for too long. He had things tied to his bed. I never knew what it was. I thought it was just a daft little thing he had done.
"Jess wasn't the sort of lad to get bullied or bully anyone and had compassion for people in difficult situations, he would always help people out. There was nothing that could have got him depressed, he was doing well at college and was looking forward to the future."
"I don't think it is something to hide. If it saves one more kid from doing it, it has got to be talked about," added Mrs Tutin. "If I had known before, I could have spoken to him. Too many children know how to play the game but don't know the consequences."
Mrs Mison has set up a petition to appeal for greater understanding of the problem. "I would like the awareness campaign to be promoted in schools across the UK. Forewarned is protection. It's too late for my son; don't let it be too late for others."
The issue of the chocking game was highlighted in The Independent last month when Anne Phillips, who lost her teenage son Mike to the practice, began a campaign to raise awareness in Britain after attending an international symposium at France's Ministry of Health, attended by teachers, paediatricians, police, psychologists and grieving parents. The symposium highlighted the problem of the game being promoted through internet websites.
When contacted by The Independent YouTube and MySpace withdrew "instructional videos" of teenagers playing the game and said they would remove further unsuitable content when it was flagged by other users.
Mrs Phillips said: "It is a global problem but in England there is a denial. There is a stigma. Everyone is afraid that if you mention it, it is going to give kids ideas. But they already know about it. "Deaths by hanging are put down as suicide or as an open verdict because coroners are not looking for this as a cause. As a parent I am fighting because I want to make sure that something worthwhile comes out of the death of my child."
The American Centres for Disease Control and Prevention warned recently: "Parents, educators and healthcare providers should become familiar with warning signs that youths are playing the choking game."
In Britain, the Department for Children, Schools and Families said it was aware of the activity and was monitoring the situation closely.
Death by choking: An unintended consequence
*There has been no official research into the game in Britain, but the problem is acknowledged more in the United States and Canada.
*A study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that since 1995 at least 82 youths between the age of six and 19 had died in the US as a result of the game – about 1 per cent of the deaths attributed to suicide by suffocation in the same age group. Other estimates have put the figure as high as 458.
*Of the 82 deaths monitored by the CDC, 86.6 per cent were male, with a mean age of 13. Just under 96 per cent of those deaths occurred while the youth was alone, and parents were unaware of the game in 92.9 per cent of cases.
*The CDC admitted the problem might be greater because it had only tracked incidents through news reports and cases where the cause of death might have been unintentional or intentional strangulation were not included.
*Signs of the game include bloodshot eyes, marks on the neck, severe headaches and disorientation after spending time alone.