A mother brings awareness to other parents about dangerous online “challenge” games after a tragedy

In the time since her son’s death, Annie McGrath has learned a great deal about the popular online games that have proliferated over the past decade.
Annie McGrath holding a rubics cube
Photo by Sharon Vanorny
Annie McGrath

Content warning: child-involved accidental death

Annie McGrath knows the precise moment that her grief became something more.

It was about three months after an unthinkable tragedy: her son Griffin’s death in February 2018 at the age of 13.

Griffin had been texting friends and engaged in the “pass-out challenge” or “choking game” — it has numerous names — in which oxygen and blood flow are temporarily cut off from the brain. Releasing the pressure of the restriction can bring momentary euphoria. Being on the wrong side of that fine line can be deadly.

Griffin was found dead in his bedroom after participating in a game McGrath never knew existed.

McGrath, a Madison native and branch manager for Wisconsin Bank & Trust, stayed home for a time after Griffin’s death. Her devastation was compounded as she’d lost her husband and Griffin’s dad, Christopher, to cancer in 2017, and her own father just 10 days before Griffin died.

two photos of griffin

Courtesy of Annie McGrath

McGrath had agreed to meet a friend for coffee — her first venture out, other than grocery shopping — and was looking for something in a drawer when she discovered a prose-poem Griffin had written and handed to her just two weeks before he died. She’d put it there to read later — they were often in a rush, getting Griffin to one of his many after-school activities — and forgotten it.

The prose-poem was about finding purpose in life and concluded with “You will find purpose.”

“It knocked me to my knees,” McGrath says.

On standing, she’s found her own purpose. In the time since Griffin’s death, McGrath has learned a great deal about the dangerous challenge game and others popular with teens that have proliferated online over the past decade.

A Time magazine article published less than a month after he died noted “a quick YouTube search turns up more than 36 million results for ‘how to play the pass-out game.’ ”

“Kids think they are invincible,” McGrath says. “They’re dying in their bedrooms.”

She has joined several grassroots parents’ organizations dedicated to publicizing the danger and encouraging social media companies to monitor their sites and remove how-to challenge videos, including The Children’s Screen Time Action Network at Fairplay, ParentsTogether and Erik’s Cause.

“We all kind of stumbled on each other, but we need to merge,” McGrath says, referencing the diverse groups. She envisions something big and cohesive like Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “There’s so many of us. Every time a new person comes in, it breaks my heart.”

Annie hugging her son

Annie McGrath with her son, Griffin (Courtesy of Annie McGrath)

Griffin’s future could hardly have been brighter. “The perfect kid,” McGrath says. “An overachiever.”

He played several musical instruments, was a star baseball pitcher and could solve a Rubik’s Cube in less than 10 seconds. Two weeks before he died, he placed third in the Wisconsin Middle School Regional Science Bowl.

He was an eighth grader at Kromrey Middle School in Middleton but played with the Middleton High School jazz band. The prose-poem he handed his mom before his death was written for an Advanced Placement literature class he was taking through the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Still, he was a kid. McGrath found a can of cinnamon on the kitchen counter and learned that Griffin and his sister, Caitlin, had also tried the viral cinnamon challenge, which involves eating a spoonful of ground cinnamon without liquid, often causing aspiration.

“I wish we had known there were some that are deadly,” she says.

The night of Feb. 14, 2018, began fairly typically. There was sadness — Chris McGrath had died the previous September — but Griffin was bounding up and down the stairs, alternately playing music and doing homework. He was scheduled to participate in a national math competition the coming weekend and at one point playfully asked his mom, who was watching TV, for an easy math problem.

“What’s 25,000 divided by 5,000?”

“Five,” Griffin said. “Thanks, Mom.”

He went upstairs to his bedroom. It was the last time his mom saw him alive.

Annie McGrath holding photos of her son

Photo by Sharon Vanorny

McGrath later learned Griffin was on his cellphone video chatting with two friends. He’d done the pass-out challenge before, and on this night he did it again.

“Once you do it you think it’s no big deal,” McGrath says. “And seeing a million other kids doing it online, it’s not scary anymore.”

The final text Griffin received on his phone the night of Feb. 14 was from one of those friends: “Please don’t be dead.”

Last October, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal presided over a Senate committee hearing titled, “Protecting Kids Online: Snapchat, TikTok, and YouTube.”

McGrath and others in her network submitted questions for the testifying tech executives that were related to the deadly challenges still ubiquitous online.

“Sen. Blumenthal did use parts of our questions and did bring up the pass-out challenge,” McGrath says.

The answers from tech companies were less than satisfactory, as a committee member, U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, said at the hearing: “The problem is clear: Big Tech preys on children and teens to make more money.”

Earlier that month, on Oct. 17, there was a ceremony at Kromrey Middle School for Griffin. A tree was planted in his honor. A poster-size rendition of his “Finding Purpose” prose-poem was placed on the wall in a hallway.

Annie holding a rubics cube

Photo by Sharon Vanorny

A local television station did a story. After it aired, McGrath heard from several other parents who had lost children to the online challenges. It strengthened her resolve to keep trying to make a difference.

“I don’t want any other parent to have to go through this,” she says.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” at madisonmagazine.com/dougmoe.

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