Editor’s note: This story contains graphic descriptions of self-harm.
A 12-year-old Oklahoma boy was found with ligature marks on his neck on July 19 after taking part in the “blackout challenge,” a dangerous trend circulating on TikTok wherein TikTokkers film themselves holding their breath or choking themselves until they lose consciousness. He was taken to the Oklahoma Children’s Hospital for treatment but died early the next morning.
Tragedies like this one have led a group of parents to call on TikTok to let them see all the videos accessed by their children, to keep abreast of the dangers.
Parents are being encouraged by authorities to seek that information.
“We would like to warn parents to stay involved with their children and take the time to look what they are doing on social media. Now more than ever due to the lockdowns, kids are bored and looking to occupy their time,” Bethany, Okla., police Lt. Angelo Orefice said in a statement. “Social media is a very influential part of a child’s life and should be heavily scrutinized by parents.”
This wasn’t the first time a child died after attempting the blackout challenge on TikTok, the app widely used by teens and preteens in the United States. A 10-year-old girl in Italy was declared brain-dead after taking part in the challenge, as were a 12-year-old Colorado boy and a 9-year-old boy in Memphis, Tenn.
Now, more than 12,000 people have signed a petition from the advocacy group ParentsTogether asking TikTok CEO Vanessa Pappas to introduce parent “mirror” accounts — settings that would allow parents to see the same feeds their kids see.
In April 2020, TikTok introduced a feature that allows parents to remotely set restrictions on their children’s accounts, including disabling direct messages, turning on restricted content mode and setting screen-time limits.
“Protecting minors is critically important, and TikTok takes the safety of our community very seriously,” the company said in a statement sent to NPR. “We strictly prohibit dangerous challenges on TikTok, and while we have not yet found evidence of a ‘blackout challenge’, we remain alert and ready to act against any violative content posted.”
But according to a recent poll, 81% of parents say Big Tech companies like TikTok need to do more to protect children.
The petition states that TikTok uses a secretive algorithm to recommend content to users, making it difficult for parents to keep tabs on what their kids engage with on TikTok. They can be exposed to bullying, sexual exploitation, pro-eating disorder videos and creators encouraging violence, self-harm or dangerous challenges, says the advocacy group.
“TikTok must do the work to keep the kids who make them billions of dollars safe,” said ParentsTogether Co-Director Justin Ruben. “That includes regulating and removing content that they deem harmful or violent to kids and helping parents monitor the often dangerous content their kids are seeing. If TikTok truly cares about their young users, they will take action to solve these problems — before there are more tragic deaths.”