Carson Steele's father can never unsee the horrifying image of his son hanging in his closet, just seven days after his 14th birthday.
"When I open the door I stood there for a couple seconds because I didn't really know what I was looking at," Rick Steele recalled. "And when I saw his feet not touching the ground and saw a belt around his neck, I mean, it just took me a minute, I mean a couple of seconds for it to register."
The Charlotte-area teen's parents said he didn't have any issues or problems in school or with friends, but they thought their son committed suicide. Until they looked through his cell phone recordings and quickly realized he was taking part in what's called 'The Choking Game'.
"It's very likely that we've had some deaths that have been ruled a suicide that actually can be led back to this activity," said Sabrina Gast, the coroner in York County where the Steele family lives.
Carson recorded himself cutting off his circulation to get high several times before. His family had no idea.
"On his cell phone, Carson had done it several times," said Jennifer Steele, Carson's mother. "I'm leaning towards the fact that he probably was maybe involved in an online challenge because it was videoed and he was narrating some of it. One of the videos he said, 'OK I'm getting ready to do this, hope I don't get hurt.'"
A few months after Carson died another Charlotte-area boy, 11-year old Garrett Pope Jr., died from the same activity. His four-year-old brother found him hanging with a belt wrapped around his neck.
"Jackson comes down and he says 'mom you have to come upstairs, Garrett's pretending to sleep, he has a belt wrapped around his neck.' Immediately knew that's not a joke," said Stacey Pope, Garrett's mother.
So how do you know if your child is doing this? Experts say you should watch for marks or discoloration in the neck area or if your child is trying to hide their neck. Also watch for objects in their room used to cut circulation to their brain, such as scarves, dog collars or ropes, signs of disorientation and hoarseness in their voice.
"Don't think that it can't happen to your family,' said Pope, "because if I were sitting here on the other side, I would listen, but I would be like 'well I'll teach him but it's never going to happen'. Well, it can happen."
Austin Police say they haven't had any reports of children playing the choking game. Still, parents need to be aware of it. KVUE sat down with Doctor Julia Hoke, a child psychologist from the Austin Child Guidance Center, to learn more about why children do this and what you can do.
Q: Help us to understand why children would be participating in these types of games.
Hoke: "Part of it is some of these games there's a real thrill associated with it, even a high. So one of the games you sometimes hear about is the choking game and it really does psychology produce a high so particularly adolescents who have more of a thrill-seeking orientation they think of this as a way to get a quick high."
Q: Do you think they understand the risks that comes with these games?
Hoke: "Absolutely not and part of that is that period of adolescence where teens think they're invincible. They think 'well that could happen to somebody else but that's not going to happen to me.'"
Q: This game in particular is not new, correct?
Hoke: "It's been around for decades. It goes by different names at kind of different points in time but its been around for a long time."
Q: So why is it that more people don't know about it?
"People who engage in this do tend to keep it pretty secretive. They're not necessarily talking to their parents about it, they may not be talking to their therapist about it. There's a lot of secrecy about it. Which is interesting because on the other hand there are also some youth who post videos on YouTube, post things on social media about it...There's very little research on it but what's out there says that parents really don't know that they're kids are doing this. Most parents whose kids engage in this behavior. The parents had no idea. It's not their fault, you know, it's that kids, kids are pretty secretive about this when they're doing it."
Q: If you are a parent, how do you address this in your home?
Hoke: "This is something parents have to address directly and talk openly and honestly with their teens and even their tweens because we're seeing it as young as middle school, but just start a conversation...Saying something like you know, 'is this something you've heard about before?' You know really asking them because I think a lot of kids probably have heard about it and you can start the conversation there. I think the important message for parents to give their kids is there's no safe way to do something like the choking game."
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