U.S. boy, 12, dies after trying TikTok ‘blackout challenge’

Joshua Haileyesus, 12, is shown in this handout photo. Alula Arega/GoFundMe

A 12-year-old Colorado boy who choked himself for a TikTok trend has died, according to his family, after he spent more than two weeks in hospital on life support.

Joshua Haileyesus, of Aurora, Colo., died on April 10 after doctors told the family that he was brain dead, local media reports. The family announced his death a few days later.

“After fighting the good fight on life support for 19 days, Joshua has gone off to be with the Lord,” his family wrote in an update to his dedicated GoFundMe page.

Joshua’s twin brother found him unconscious and struggling to breathe in the bathroom of the family home on March 22. Family, neighbours and first responders tried to revive him before he was rushed to the local children’s hospital, where he was placed in intensive care.

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His family says he had been trying to participate in the “blackout challenge” on TikTok, which calls for participants to choke themselves until they pass out. The challenge has been around for years, and has been known on other social media platforms as the “passout challenge,” the “game of choking,” “the fainting game” and “speed dreaming.”

“I would never imagine my son would do such a thing,” the boy’s father, Haileyesus Zeryihun, said late last month.

He also warned other parents to be vigilant about what their children are doing online.

“This is not a game,” he said. “This is deadly.”

Joshua is not the first child to die from the challenge. A 10-year-old girl died in Italy last January after strangling herself for the challenge, triggering a government probe and stricter age verification rules for TikTok in the country.

TikTok offered its “profound sympathies” for the boy and his family in a statement last month.

“At TikTok, we have no higher priority than protecting the safety of our community, and content that promotes or glorifies dangerous behaviour is strictly prohibited and promptly removed to prevent it from becoming a trend on our platform,” the company said in its statement.

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Searches for the #BlackoutChallenge on TikTok come back with no results and instead offer a warning.

“This phrase may be associated with behaviour or content that violates our guidelines,” it says. “Promoting a safe and positive experience is TikTok’s top priority.”

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Joshua’s family described him as an “incredibly intelligent, funny, caring and gifted 12 year old” who planned to join the army and later become a first responder.

He was the eldest of four boys, including an infant who was born late last year.

His story triggered an outpouring of sympathy throughout his fight. Vigils were held outside the hospital, and well-wishers donated more than US$183,000 to help cover his medical expenses through GoFundMe.

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His family hopes others will learn from their tragedy.

“We urge the community to (spread) awareness about Joshua and the real risks of not having knowledge of what kinds of activities children are involved in,” they wrote on GoFundMe.

Zeryihun often shared the same message in media interviews during Joshua’s final days.

“I want others to see what I’m going through,” he told local broadcaster Denver7. “Learn for their children.”

With files from The Associated Press

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