Family: The accidental death of Erik Robinson has prompted his mother to advocacy. Courtesy photo

Erik Robinson was a happy, healthy 6th grader at Lincoln Middle School, an “A” student and avid baseball player with a bright future ahead of him, until his sudden and untimely death by asphyxiation.  

Robinson’s death was not a suicide, but a tragic accident from participation in a generations-old challenge known as the choking game or pass out challenge. This dangerous practice involves self-strangulation, often in order to achieve a brief high feeling when oxygen returns to the brain. 

However in the tragic case of Robinson and many other teen and tween victims, the self-strangulation led to accidental asphyxiation and death. According to his mother Judy Rogg, Robinson was first shown the game in school on a Monday and tried it out on a Tuesday.

Since Robinson’s untimely passing in 2010, Rogg has dedicated her life to spreading awareness about the dangers of the choking game, online and within schools, through her organization Erik’s Cause. 

Now, 12 years later, this challenge has seen a resurgence due to videos spread on social media and Rogg is turning her attention to what she views as the next frontier in the fight to protect children — regulating their activity online.

She, alongside a coalition of families who lost children to the choking game, cyberbullying and other dangerous online influences, has become a fierce advocate for the California Age-Appropriate Design-Code Act. This legislation would require large tech platforms to cut down on the data they collect from young users, limit the potential for risky connections with adults, mandate age-appropriate content policies and discontinue “nudging” practices that encourage young users to weaken their privacy settings.

“I really, really hope that this bill passes. I think it will be an enormous first step and maybe the US Congress will follow suit afterwards,” said Rogg. “I’m really proud that California is trying to make an enormous difference.”

If passed, AB 2273 would create the strongest protections for young internet users anywhere in the nation. The bill is modeled after the UK’s age-appropriate design code, which was enacted in 2020 and has since become the blueprint for legislators working on child online privacy and wellbeing laws in several nations. 

AB 2273 has bipartisan support and was co-authored by Democratic Assemblymember Buffy Wicks from Oakland and Republican Assemblymember Jordan Cunningham from Templeton. It passed the Assembly Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee on April 19 and the Assembly Appropriations Committee on May 19. 

The choking game is just one of many dangers that exist for young users online. Rogg said she hopes this bill will also help protect young people from cyberbullying and from social media drug dealers peddling fentanyl, which is a growing crisis both locally and nationwide. In Santa Monica, 16-year-old Sammy Berman Chapman was killed in February 2021 from a fentanyl-laced pill he purchased on Snapchat and mistakenly believed was Xanax. 

“At least change the default and remove the ads and not have algorithms that are targeting kids with things that they’re not looking for, that is not appropriate,” said Rogg. “Buying Fentanyl online, it’s another big one. I mean, all of this stuff is just insane; what people are doing to make a buck.”

While social media was not the driving force behind choking game deaths when Robinson died in 2010, it has since become the key culprit behind the challenge’s persistent and pernicious spread.

In December, Nylah Anderson, a 10-year-old resident of Chester Pennsylvania, died from accidental asphyxiation after a video promoting the “black out challenge” appeared in the personalized “For You Page’’ of her TikTok feed. Her mother Tawainna Anderson, is currently suing TikTok and its parent company ByteDance in a wrongful death suit.

According to Rogg similar videos frequently circulate on YouTube and Facebook, however it is hard to get an accurate picture of the scope of the problem as choking game deaths are often misclassified as suicides. 

“His [Robinson’s] death was ruled accidental, which is a great relief to many parents because frequently these are very misclassified as suicides because of what it looks like,” said Rogg. “Most law enforcement don’t go into what’s called a psychological autopsy to determine the state of mind.”

Rogg has spent more than a decade trying to warn children and parents about the dangers of participating in this challenge. 

A key message in her choking game awareness efforts and children’s online safety advocacy is that young adults do not fully develop their reasoning and decision making skills until they are 25.

“The population you’re trying to protect, their brains are not fully developed, the executive functioning hasn’t fully come online, so it’s hard for them to make good decisions,” said Rogg, later adding, “I believe this is a really big co-existing piece of why the legislation needs to happen and beyond that more legislation will hopefully happen, but this is a great start.”