Parents of two girls who said their children died as a result of a “blackout challenge” on TikTok are suing the company, claiming its algorithm intentionally served children dangerous content that led to their deaths.
The girls were 8 and 9 when they died last year after watching a challenge that encouraged users to choke until they passed out, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
The lawsuit alleges that TikTok knew or should have known that its product was “addictive,” directed children to harmful content, and failed to take significant steps to stop those videos or warn children and parents about them.
The complaint specifically mentions TikTok’s “For You” page, which the complaint says displays a stream of videos selected by an algorithm developed by TikTok based on a user’s demographics, “likes” and previous activity on the app. The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.
“TikTok should be held accountable for pushing deadly content to these two young girls,” said Matthew P. Bergman, a founding attorney at the Social Media Victims Law Center, a private law firm formed in November to hold social networks accountable for harming children.
A TikTok spokesperson said the company would not comment on the ongoing litigation. But the spokesman referred to a statement from December, when People magazine reported that a Pennsylvania mother said her 10-year-old daughter died while trying to black out the challenge.
“This disturbing ‘challenge,’ which people seem to be learning about from sources other than TikTok, long predates our platform and was never a TikTok trend,” according to a statement linked to a federal report on deaths from “the game suppression” from 1995 to 2007. “We remain vigilant in our commitment to user safety and would immediately remove linked content if found. Our deepest sympathies to the family on their tragic loss.”
Social networks like TikTok promote content based on user preferences, said Dr. Lois Lee, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention. Without parental supervision, children can be exposed to a range of content, including videos they may not understand, she said.
The academy recommends parents monitor their children’s social media use and limit screen time as much as possible. When kids see a lot of “likes” on a video challenge, Lee said, they may think it’s safe or fun to try without realizing the consequences.
“Children of elementary school age do not have the knowledge or insight to understand that these are dangerous things,” she said.
One of the girls named in the lawsuit, Lalani Erika Walton, 8, of Temple, Texas, is described in the suit as a sweet and outgoing child who likes to dress up as a princess and play with makeup. She wanted to be a famous rapper like Cardi B.
She got her first cell phone on her 8th birthday on April 23, 2021, and quickly became “addicted” to TikTok, where she posted videos of herself singing and dancing in hopes of becoming “TikTok famous,” the suit says.
After Lalani was seriously injured in a car accident that killed one of her half-brothers, she went to live with her stepmother. Unbeknownst to her mother or stepmother, TikTok’s algorithm “directed” Lalani to the blackout challenge in July 2021, the lawsuit says.
On July 13, 2021, Lalani had bruises on her neck and told her family she fell and hit the bed frame, the lawsuit states. Soon after, she spent part, if not most, of a 20-hour car trip with her stepmother, sitting in the back seat, watching the blackout challenge, the suit says.
On July 15, 2021, Lalani was found with a rope around her neck, the lawsuit states.
After her death, police took Lalani’s phone and tablet and told her stepmother that “Lalani did not commit suicide,” the lawsuit states. The police officer showed videos of the blackout challenge to the stepmother and said Lalani watched the video over and over and attempted the challenge herself, the lawsuit said.
Another girl named in the suit, Arriani Jaileen Arroyo, 9, of Milwaukee, enjoyed playing basketball and soccer and riding her bike.
She got a phone when she was 7 and downloaded TikTok, using it to watch and post dancing and singing videos. She became “addicted” to the product, the suit says, and began trying “challenges.” Because the “challenges” she talked about involved drinking and eating, her parents believed they were harmless, the lawsuit says.
In January 2021, Arriani told her mother about a little girl in Italy who had died while trying to black out the challenge, Bergman said. Arriana’s mother told her that she should never try such a challenge, and Arriana let it be known that she understood, it says in the suit.
On February 26, 2021, Arriani was found with a rope around her neck, the lawsuit states. Bergman said Arriani watched the blackout challenge on TikTok. She died that day after being taken off life support, the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit names several other children — including a 12-year-old from Oklahoma and a 14-year-old from Australia — who are said to have died while trying to black out the challenge.
Dangerous challenges, like one that involves biting or swallowing Tide Pods, have been circulating the Internet for years. The lawsuit mentions challenges that include consuming large amounts of Benadryl or getting out of a moving car to dance in the street.
“I don’t know if they’re more dangerous than they’ve ever been,” said Zach Sweat, editor-in-chief of Know Your Meme, an online database of memes and online challenges. “I think the availability of things like this and the way these algorithms work brings it to more people.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.