Archie in a coma after a “blackout” challenge: “Teens will use death to feel alive”

In the UK, 12-year-old Archie Battersbee has been brain dead since early April. He was found unconscious at home on April 7, after participating in the “black-out challenge”. This sordid challenge, which consists in asphyxiating oneself, also claimed the lives of two American girls aged 8 and 9 in July 2021. To achieve this, children and adolescents engage in various techniques: they hold their breath, tighten the blow, use a scarf… at the risk of their life.

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If the “game” is not not new, the arrival of social networks is now transforming these dangers, which have become trends. All day long, children and teenagers scroll through their “feeds” of proposed content, where “challenges” proliferate like the plague.

Grégory Michel, professor of psychopathology at the University of Bordeaux, who presents himself as an expert in dangerous practices and games on the internet, explains what makes these challenges attractive to young people.

What attracts young people to this kind of challenge?

It will depend on age. When it comes to very young children – kindergarten and primary – they are unaware of the consequences that their actions can induce and they do so systematically by mimicry. That is to say, the games are initiated by older ones – brothers or sisters.

The bulk of the matter is played out in adolescence, quite early, when children change and are therefore more susceptible. We then find in them a desire for the forbidden and an appetite for strong emotions and what is dangerous. the “blackout challenge” fulfilled all the criteria. Formerly it was known as “30 seconds of happiness”because the fact of suffocating can produce strong sensations – one has the impression of taking off from the ground, the vision becomes distorted… but when it lasts too long it causes comas, sometimes with awakenings which induce irreversible sequelae, even deaths.

This is what makes raising awareness of these practices particularly difficult. How to prevent this type of game by informing about the dangers, even though this information can be a counter-productive variable?

Can we see in the acting out suicidal impulses?

This is not suicidal, in my opinion. On the contrary, these young people will exploit death to feel alive. Confronting potentially deadly practices, while emerging victorious, reinforces their legitimacy to exist. Moreover, when we find young people hanged following this challenge, their feet always touch the ground, unlike suicide. We can nevertheless find in these young people elements of fragility, that is to say elements of depression, but not suicidal.

Why are teenagers affected by this phenomenon?

It’s a time of insecurity. We wonder how to leave childhood and integrate the adult world. There is a fragility of identity and benchmarks which means that these young people will seek, by all means, practices that will reassure them. Indulging in behaviors of this type allows young people to restore a kind of self-esteem that they do not necessarily have in their daily lives.

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In the case of intentional and forced games – at the end of which there is always a victim -, we can also see an exacerbation of the dynamics of harassment. What we find most often is that the teenager who initiated these games already had a violent character. The game will be a way for him to channel his violence and express his omnipotence.

What role do social networks play?

On social networks there are in particular the likes and comments which will play a determining role – they can multiply, or on the contrary block, certain practices. We also find the effect of nomination, as we have seen with theice bucket challenge. In order not to be marginalized, if you are appointed, you have to engage in this kind of practice.

We already found this effect in schools – if we don’t do like the others we are excluded, hazed. With social networks, this hazing has taken the form of cyberbullying: we put pressure on young people to do it, to start again, to go further. Among particularly fragile young people, it is a godsend to rush into this type of approach.

Finally, we live in a society that greatly values ​​the spectacular, which is also driven by the networks. We are more in doing and having than in being. The teenager must do spectacular things, wear clothes from prestigious brands, be able to be recognized. The photos and videos attest to these practices like trophies. We find this effect in some young people who are unable to be themselves without the gaze of others.

Interview by Mariana Abreu

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