The twin circles of deep purple on the back of each of her daughter’s hands appeared almost innocuous at first. Tori Barber thought her bright, outgoing ten-year-old must have been drawing on her hands with a pen.
In fact, though, the patches of darkened flesh were a type of burn, caused when Tori’s daughter sprayed an aerosol deodorant with the nozzle right up against her skin to create a freezing sensation. The result is akin to frostbite.
The purple circles were just the start. Within 24 hours the schoolgirl was in hospital in excruciating pain, and doctors were warning that skin grafts might be needed to tackle the blistering burns.
So what on earth had possessed her to do this? The answer: a ‘fun’ challenge some children in her class had seen on the video-sharing platform TikTok. She and her friend had tried it during a sleepover.
Only after five weeks was she finally discharged from the care of hospital burns specialists. When she shared photographs of the wounds with other parents on Facebook, Tori said: ‘All this for seconds of silliness. This was a trend someone had seen on TikTok and my daughter wanted to see how it felt. She didn’t realise it would turn out this way.’
TikTok has taken the social media world by storm since its global launch in 2017, allowing users to share short bursts of content that range from innocent dance routines to perilous challenges.
Archie, of Southend-On-Sea, Essex, suffered brain damage at home on April 7 and is in coma. Medics say he is ‘brain dead’
Doctors have been given permission to turn off Archie’s life support machine, but his parents are trying to continue the fight to keep him alive. Pictured is Archie in hospital
Archie’s parents Paul Battersbee and Hollie Dance after the Court of Appeal refused to postpone the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment from their 12-year-old son on Monday
There is no more poignant and terrifying example of what can happen than the case of 12-year-old Archie Battersbee, who was declared brain dead after collapsing at home and has been the subject of a fierce legal battle over whether to switch off his life support.
His mother Hollie believes her son may have been trying the so – called ‘blackout’ challenge shortly before he was found unconscious. This insanely dangerous online craze encourages users to choke themselves until they reach the point of losing consciousness. When Archie’s mother found him, the budding gymnast had a cord wrapped around his neck.
TikTok says this was never a trend on its platform and it ‘removes any contact that promotes dangerous behaviour that could cause harm’.
This week, Archie’s parents lost their Supreme Court attempt to stop doctors withdrawing his life support, and yesterday the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) refused an application to postpone the withdrawal of his treatment.
Archie’s case is not an isolated one. Last month, a lawsuit was brought against TikTok by the families of two young girls in the U.S. who claim the hosting service’s ‘dangerous’ algorithms were to blame for their children’s deaths.
Kristin Livdahl tweeted about an incident in which Alexa told her child to ‘plug in a phone charger about halfway into a wall outlet, then touch a penny to the exposed prongs’
The two girls, aged eight and nine, died of strangulation last year after trying the same challenge, which has been growing in popularity across social media in the past year. It has also has been linked to the deaths of at least five other children aged ten to 14 in Italy, Australia and the U.S.
Other ‘challenges’ on TikTok beggar belief.
In the socket challenge, a phone charger is partially pulled out of a socket and a penny is dropped on the exposed prongs, leading to a shower of sparks.
In the salt-and-ice challenge, participants pour salt on their skin, then cover it in ice, leading to second-degree burns and frostbite.
The nutmeg challenge involves consuming ground nutmeg, leading to a ‘high’ plus side-effects that may include a raised heart rate, breathing difficulties and, in some cases, seizures. The Benadryl challenge, in which many times the safe dose of antihistamines are consumed, can cause seizures and cardiac arrest.
The list goes on.
In Hertfordshire, Tori Barber is grateful that her daughter is recovering from her injuries. ‘She doesn’t even have TikTok,’ says the mother of three, who is desperate to ensure no other child or parent has to go through what her family have done.
‘She had just heard about this challenge at school, was staying with a friend and they were like, “let’s give it a try”.’
This ‘outlet challenge’ was a TikTok trend in the US last year. Pictured is a still from a TikTok video showing someone perform the challenge
Although the ‘challenge’ itself predates social media, awareness of it has been amplified by the explosion in video-sharing, particularly on sites such as YouTube and TikTok.
‘I was speechless when I realised what she had done,’ says Tori. ‘There was a tiny mark on her forearm where she first tried it.
‘I said: “What were you thinking? You did it once, why do it again? She said she wanted to see how cold she could cope with.
‘When she went to hospital last week, the nurse said that in 20 years she had never seen anything like it — but that three or four people had done it recently.’
Jane Platt’s daughter Sarah has been left with lasting health problems after another challenge that had been doing the rounds on TikTok went wrong.
Sarah, 15, was rushed to hospital in February 2020 after being persuaded to take part in the ‘skullbreaker challenge’, which is as lunatic as it sounds. It involves two perpetrators kicking a victim’s legs from under them as they jump in the air, causing them to land flat on their back on the ground, banging their head.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the moment Sarah’s attempt at the challenge went dangerously wrong was captured on camera. A very reluctant participant, one moment the bright, sporting teenager is bouncing up and down between two hockey teammates on the pitch. The next her legs are knocked from under her and she lands on her upper back and neck, breaking several small bones.
A dramatic photo shows Sarah Platt, 15, lying flat with a brace on her head and neck after taking part in a vital TikTok trend thought to be the ‘Skullbreaker’
When Jane, 57, received a call from the team coach telling her Sarah was on her way to hospital, she assumed it was a sports-related injury. ‘I was thinking she’d been hit with a stick or a ball,’ she says. ‘When I arrived at the hospital and they told me it was a TikTok accident, I went: “A what?”
‘I’d barely heard of TikTok. Then I walked through the double doors and my daughter was lying on a trolley with tape round her head and chin and I just thought, “Oh my God”.’ Then Sarah confided in her mother that she couldn’t feel her right leg.
Between the tears and the flurry of activity to assess Sarah’s condition, Jane’s elder daughter was shown the video clip of the challenge. Furious, Jane shared it on Facebook, writing: ‘Please, please, if you have teenagers doing TikToks, do not get them involved in this.’
The clip went viral, attracting more than 8,000 shares.
After five days, Sarah left Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital in a wheelchair, with crutches. Two years on, she is back on the hockey pitch but far from unscathed.
For a few months after the incident, Sarah would pass out for no apparent reason. She was diagnosed with Postural Tachycardia Syndrome (PoTS), which means her heart rate increases abnormally when she sits or stands up. It can be brought on by a trauma such as the one Sarah suffered. ‘The long-lasting repercussions have been horrendous,’ says Jane. ‘If she hadn’t done the TikTok, she wouldn’t have PoTS.
‘We just have to deal with it. She is now supposed to wear flight stockings and has a completely different lifestyle to the one she had before.’
Ms Dance kisses her son Archie as he lies in bed in hospital, following an accident at his Essex home in April
Left: Archie Battersbee with his older brother Tom Summers. Right: Archie with his mother Hollie Dance
As for TikTok, Jane says: ‘I don’t mind the dancing and normal things kids do, but the skullbreaker? That is utter madness.’
In fairness to TikTok, many of these ‘challenges’ have existed in playgrounds and been circulated on other social media for years.
Today, anyone searching for the skullbreaker or blackout challenge on TikTok is directed to a page informing users about how to assess challenges, with warnings. But when the genie is out of the bottle, there is no putting it back.
And as anyone who has used social media knows, the challenges are ever-changing, which makes them hard to police.
The TikTok app’s restrictions state that users must be over 13. But this year a report found that a third of children aged five to seven owned a TikTok account. It was a similar percentage among eight to 11-year-olds.
Compounding this is TikTok’s mysterious algorithm, which allows the site to deliver tailored content to your account based on your past viewing.
The recent lawsuits brought against TikTok in the U.S. following the deaths from ‘blackout’ claim it was the app’s algorithm that pushed the challenge onto the girls’ ‘For You’ page, which offers recommended content.
Archie with his mother Hollie Dance (left), brother Tom Summers and sister Lauren Summers
Archie Battersbee’s brother Tom Summers kissing Archie on the head in hospital
TikTok says it does not comment on ongoing litigation but has previously said: ‘This disturbing “challenge”, which people seem to learn about from sources other than TikTok, long predates our platform and has never been a TikTok trend.’
However, social media industry analyst Matt Navarra explains: ‘TikTok is particularly powerful because the way its algorithm works is somewhat different from other social media platforms like Meta or Instagram. Over a short period of time, the platform will learn quickly what the individual will want to see. It will feed more and more of that stuff.
‘It means some trends can spread very quickly, and that’s what seems to be behind these challenges. Everybody is talking about it and it’s being shared in private messages or other apps. It will quite quickly become viral, and that’s how it comes on your feed.
‘Little Tommy or Sarah, who have never shown any interest in spraying deodorant on their arms and burning themselves, can very quickly find other people sharing that challenge.’
Former police officers John Staines and John Woodley, who run training sessions for children, teachers and parents as part of their eSafety Training business, say the way children can easily latch onto these risky challenges is chilling.
‘We are in schools every day and my anxiety levels are going up,’ says Staines.
‘We’ve just been with a group of Year Five and Six children (aged nine to 11) and probably 75 per cent of them had seen challenges that involved putting things over your head or round your neck, or holding your breath. Most of them had seen challenges that meant putting a bag over your head.
‘It’s a nightmare. In the past three weeks we have had two kids in Year Two (aged six to seven) speaking about really extreme challenges.
‘First there was a little girl talking about the coat hanger challenge, where you put a coat hanger on your head and your head automatically moves left or right, which is obviously total nonsense.
‘Two weeks ago, we were asked to speak to a seven-year-old boy after one of our sessions. He had been doing the blackout challenge by putting a bag over his head.
‘This morning we asked a class: if you saw the coat hanger challenge over someone’s shoulder on a screen and there was a coat hanger in the room, would you copy it? Everyone said yes. We are really worried about it. Little kids have no sense of fear. They see something online and copy it. ‘
Until the pandemic the age of kids engaged online was different, but [during the lockdowns] everyone got involved in TikTok, crazy dances, making videos to share. Now those children are still on TikTok and seeing some bad stuff.’
They encourage parents who allow their child access to TikTok to use the ‘Family Pairing’ function, which will send notifications to the parents’ phones, prompting them to look at content being suggested to their children.
But the key is talking to children and encouraging them to check what they see with their parents.
TikTok insists it is acting to keep users safe, and this week announced plans for stronger content moderation to protect young users.
When the Mail carried out searches for the ‘blackout’ or ‘skullbreaker’ challenges, the app immediately directed us to its advice guide. But a quick search for the skullbreaker challenge under one of its numerous other names led immediately to content of users falling to the ground.
Searches for ‘deodorant challenge’ did not lead the Mail to anyone completing the challenge, although they did yield results of users who had hurt themselves.
As for its algorithm, TikTok insists it has been testing ways to avoid recommending similar content that may be fine as a single video but could be more problematic if viewed repeatedly.
A spokesman says: ‘Nothing is more important to us than the safety and wellbeing of our community, especially our younger community members. Our community guidelines make clear that we do not tolerate content that promotes dangerous acts that may lead to harm.
‘We have taken a series of proactive steps to protect our users and to educate them on the potential dangers of online challenges, including an in-app guide, developed with leading youth safety experts.’
Yet parents living in fear for their children’s safety may worry that this is too little, too late.