Parents and doctors warn about potentially fatal 'skull-breaking' TikTok prank

Photo: Valerie Dodson/Facebook
Photo: Valerie Dodson/Facebook 

Parents and doctors are speaking out about a dangerous new challenge sweeping across the popular teen social media app TikTok, which has already caused serious injuries and could be fatal.

Valerie Hodson of Tucson, Arizona, took to Facebook to raise awareness of the "malicious" skull-breaker trend, which caused her 12-year-old son, Aidan, to lose consciousness two weeks ago. "Seeing your child hurt and in the hospital is something that I never wish upon anyone. I can't fix it with a hug and kiss, and that part is really hard," she tells Essential Kids.

In her post to Facebook, Ms Hodson wrote, "I really contemplated posting this, but I feel there needs to be awareness of this malicious cruel viral prank. On Wednesday my son was asked to do a jumping contest with his two "friends". When he jumped up, the two boys kicked him, as hard as they could, so his legs flew out in front of him. "

Aidan landed on his back and head. "As he struggled to get up he lost consciousness," Ms Hodson continues. "He fell forward landing on his face." But while school staff ran to assist him, Ms Hodson says the two boys stood laughing and sniggering.

"Fast forward at the hospital," she writes, "he has a head injury, stitches in his face, severe cuts inside his mouth and two front teeth I have to keep on eye on."

Ms Hodson told Essential Kids that while Aidan is healing "better each day", their family has been through a tough few weeks. "I originally only posted for family and friends, then a family member of mine asked if I could make my post public, so she could share. I did, and it basically blew up."

The mum-of-three says she soon learned that so many other families were going through the same thing with their own children. "Talk to your kids, ask them about social media pranks/challenges, discuss the repercussions and consequences of these actions. I honestly never want a family to go through what we have."

Marc and Stacy Shenker of New Jersey are also warning parents of the dangers after the prank left their 13-year-old son with concussion.

"As a result of the concussion, he also had a seizure," Mr Shenker told CBS New York."By the time I got to school, which was under 20 minutes, he was non-responsive and they had called an ambulance."

And he wants other parents to be alert.

"A prank of this nature couldn't just put a kid in the hospital but could actually kill someone," Mr Shenker said.
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Sydney Pediatric Neurosurgeon Dr Adam Fowler agrees. Speaking to Essential Kids, Dr Fowler notes that while the prank seems to be an activity that deliberately sets out to cause humiliation or embarrassment in the unsuspecting subject, "the risk of severe injury, permanent disability and even death are very real."
"Imagine falling backwards off a ladder at jumping height...and then not being able to protect yourself as your full weight and kinetic energy is taken to to the back of your head," he says. "The practice deserves widespread condemnation.'
 
 
Martine Oglethorpe of The Modern Parent who is an expert in digital wellbeing and online safety tells Essential Kids that challenges are often seen as a way to "stand out from the noise". "There are over one billion videos uploaded to TikTok each day so when people want to stand out, the riskier and more challenging the videos are the more likely they are to stand out in the crowd," she says. "Unfortunately when you have young people who don't have the cognitive development to be able to determine what is healthy and safe, this can result in negative consequences."
So what can parents do? 
Ms Oglethorpe says that while it's hard to filter out the videos on TikTok, at the very least, parents can make sure kids' accounts are private. She does acknowledge, however, that with older teens this is more difficult. 
"You can also go to the settings and under Digital Wellbeing you can filter explicit content," she adds. "This may filter out some of the worst, but again, as we know, there is so much content out there it is difficult to keep this monitored and videos like the 'skull breaker challenge' are not deemed 'explicit' so will still turn up in your child's feed."
Ms Oglethorpe adds that it's also important that parents have the conversations about how their teens can more critically evaluate some of these challenges. "We should also be using these examples as conversation starters to try and get them to look ahead to possible outcomes, to trust their gut instinct if something doesn't feel right and to discuss the motivation as to why people do certain things and if there are other safer ways to achieve the same result."
In a statement,  a spokesperson for TikTok told Essential Kids:
"TikTok is a platform for creative expression, and we're committed to keeping this community safe. As we make clear in our Community Guidelines, we do not allow content that encourages, promotes, or glorifies dangerous challenges that might lead to injury, and we remove reported behavior or activity that violates our guidelines. To help keep our platform safe, we have introduced a slate of safety features geared towards enhancing our users' experience, including tools for reporting inappropriate content and for managing privacy settings."