Online pranks are killing children – but is there any way to stop them?

an increasing number of children are causing serious harm to themselves after viewing inappropriate content online (Picture: Getty)

When Leigh Rose’s nine-year-old son asked her where the Tide Pods were kept, the hairs on the back of her neck stood up.

An American brand of laundry liquid, Tide Pods have gained infamy from an online challenge that sees kids biting down on the colourful capsules and letting soap pour from their mouths.

While it might seem like harmless fun to a kid, it has the potential to be exceptionally dangerous and has caused multiple deaths in the US.

Thankfully, Leigh knew about the Tide Pod challenge – which reportedly started as a joke in 2017 – so was already keeping her laundry products under lock and key, because her little boy is vulnerable.

However, it wasn’t the first time she had felt this rising alarm, as Leigh’s son, who she has chosen not to name, had become obsessed with online challenges.

His first exposure was when he was watching a Peppa Pig episode on YouTube; a Momo challenge – which was said to trigger youngsters into harming themselves – appeared during the adverts.  Although this phenomenon has since been outed as a hoax, her thrill-seeking son was intrigued and started hunting for more challenges.

‘If he had got hold of a capsule, he definitely would have eaten it because that was what he’d seen on these challenge videos,’ Leigh tells Metro. ‘The way that they are uploaded – it is done to be enticing, to look like it’s fun and like everyone’s doing it.’

Leigh has been worried about her vulnerable son becoming enticed by online challenges (Picture: Supplied)

She was right to be worried, as an increasing number of children are causing serious harm to themselves after viewing inappropriate content online – or left living in fear if they don’t take up a challenge.

In an NSPCC report from last year, called ‘Children’s Experiences of Legal but Harmful Content Online’ one 13-year-old told researchers: ‘Me and my friends keep getting added to these weird accounts on TikTok – basically, they keep asking us to play this game and if we say no, they threaten to hurt us and our family. I’ve tried blocking them, but then more accounts start popping up again. They said they’re gonna kill me in my sleep.’

There are also reports of online ‘pranks’ that tragically went too far. 

In March this year, 11-year-old Tommie-lee Gracie Billington lost his life while taking part in a ‘social media challenge gone wrong’. He lost consciousness after ‘inhaling toxic substances’ during a sleepover at a friend’s house on March 2, and died later in hospital. 

Tommie-lee – pictured with his father Graham – died after taking part in a social media challenge called ‘chroming’ (Picture: Facebook)

His death was believed to have been linked to a social media trend called ‘chroming,’ which involves inhaling toxic chemicals such as paint, solvents, aerosols, cleaning products or petrol.

Meanwhile Sarah Platt, from Banbury, broke her neck three years ago when she was 16, attempting the Skullbreaker challenge. Egged on by friends who’d seen the challenge on TikTok, her legs were kicked away from beneath her so she landed on her neck. 

Across the globe in Indonesia, two teens were killed in 2022 when they took part in the horrifying ‘Angel of Death’ challenge. The prank involves young people jumping in front of a moving truck; they only ‘win’ if the truck stops.

The same year, the heartbreaking case of 12-year-old Archie Battersbee hit the headlines, due to the lengthy court battle regarding whether or not to withdraw his life support, after he was found unconscious and subsequently considered to have suffered brainstem death.

12-year-old Archie was at the centre of a life-support treatment fight after he died accidentally following a “prank or experiment” that went wrong(Picture: PA)

His mother originally believed Archie had been involved in online challenges. But while the inquest found that Archie died accidentally following a “prank or experiment” that went wrong, the coroner said there was no evidence he was doing an online challenge at the time – although he could not ‘rule out the possibility’. 

In a bid to raise awareness of the dangers, grieving parents are also issuing stark warnings about what our children are able to view online, themselves having learned in the most horrific way. 

Whether it is internet challenges or other content that is irreparably damaging their mental health, many feel that not enough is being done to protect impressionable young minds.

One of those parents is bereaved mum Ruth Moss, who is fundraising for Childline, as the charity supported her 13-year-old daughter before she took her life after being exposed to harmful content online.  

Another is Ellen Roome, who is fighting in parliament for better protection for kids after she found her 14-year-old son Jools Sweeney unresponsive in his room two years ago.

Ellen doesn’t know how her teen son Jools died (Picture: Supplied)

Police could find no reason why her happy teen would deliberately take his own life and he left no note to explain his actions, the inquest into his death heard in September that year.

Ellen, from Cheltenham, believes the answers lie in Jools’ social media accounts, but she has been unable to obtain the data.

‘People don’t realise that as a parent of a child who’s died, you don’t have a right to see their social media, and I am just shocked by that. I have no idea why my son took his life. The coroner didn’t rule it was suicide and there was no one else involved. They couldn’t prove he was in a suicidal mood.

‘My gut feeling was that it was possibly some sort of challenge. And that would stack up. Knowing Jools and the way he was, he would try various challenges. Even when he was little he would be the one to climb to the top of the tree.’

If this was a child that died of an illness you’d be doing a post mortem to work out what’s wrong (Picture: Supplied)

Ellen, 48, has trawled through Jools’ texts, WhatsApps, photos and videos and found nothing conclusive. Less than two hours before he died, her Ring doorbell shows Jools happily shouting goodbye to his best friend, and she doesn’t believe that he was feeling down.

‘There were no signs of depression, bullying or anything outside the normal teenage experience and she has been unable to access his SnapChat, TikTok or Instagram accounts, where she believes the answer lies.

It wasn’t until Ellen spoke to families of other bereaved families that she found that social media data is only stored for 90 days. Ellen has spoken to the family Archie Battersbee, as well as Molly Russell’s father, a teenager who died by suicide after being exposed to a stream of dark, depressing content on Pinterest and Instagram.

Since then, Ellen’s MP Alex Chalk has written to the Attorney General to re-open Jools’ inquest at the High Court who would have the powers to demand the information from the social media companies. 

‘I’m just supposed to live the rest of my life with no idea why one day I walked in and found my son dead in his bedroom’ (Picture: Supplied)

‘It may be nothing. But I am left with a child who’s died and I don’t know why he’s not here,’ says Ellen. ‘And that’s impossibly hard to live with. If this was a child that died of an illness you’d be doing a post mortem to work out what’s wrong. I’m just supposed to live the rest of my life with no idea why one day I walked in and found my son dead in his bedroom. Which is horrific.’

It’s a fear that mum Leigh lived with for years following her son’s fixation with online challenges. 

‘He has always been into technology. He was diagnosed autistic when he was three and his special interest is gaming,’ explains the 39-year-old business mentor from North Yorkshire. 

‘He would go on YouTube, to learn how to play Minecraft, and these challenges started to come through. I’m online quite a lot so I am very aware of these things. When he started saying he wanted a Tide Pod, it was a trigger to know exactly what he’d seen.’

Leigh immediately went through her son’s history on YouTube and reported every video that he’d watched.

‘Because of how the algorithms work, the more you watch, the more it shows you’ (Picture: Getty Images)

‘It became a constant battle trying to stop him and then having to clear his search history every night. I would be sitting in the room with him, and he was still bringing these things up. And then, because of how the algorithms work, the more you watch, the more it shows you.

‘I tried to scare him out of doing them by explaining how dangerous it was, that people had ended up in hospital, but that just made it more exciting for him.’

Fortunately for Leigh, her son’s interest in gaming eventually took over and he forgot about the online challenges. But she remains wary.

‘All kids are vulnerable. There is this peer mentality, children are seeing these things happening online, and they are seeing their friends getting likes and comments, and becoming popular because they do it.’

Meanwhile, Ellen is now campaigning for a change in the law calling on parents to have the right to access their children’s social media accounts, both when they are alive or deceased. The matter will be debated in parliament after the general election.

‘I just think we need to do more to protect children,’ she says. ‘It bothers me that social media could have contributed to his death. I want the right to look at that.’

A spokesman for Snapchat said: ‘As a platform popular with teens we know we have additional responsibilities to create a safe, age-appropriate and positive experience. We have extra protections for under 18s and offer parental tools so parents can set content controls, see who their teens are talking to and report anything they are worried about. We support the aims of the Online Safety Act and work with experts to inform our approach to safety on Snapchat.’

TikTok and Instagram did not reply to a request for comment.

If you need support, reach out to the Samaritans 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, by calling 116 123 for free. Alternatively, email

Which challenges do you need to be aware of?

Which challenges do you need to be aware of?

Psychotherapist Charlotte Armitage says parents need to be open with their kids about the dangers of such challenges: ‘To a child, the online world might feel safe because they are accessing it from the physical safety of their home, as such they may feel lured into a false sense of security regarding the risks.

‘As parents we are also lured into a false sense of security. When our children are in the home and we know where they are, we feel that they are safe.’

Charlotte advises that parents notice if they are acting secretively with their device, if they shut their bedroom door when they go online and if they seem anxious, detached or moody afterwards.

She adds: ‘Take an interest in what they are doing online. Watch them play a game, watch social media videos with them. You will soon start to see what kind of content they are viewing as it will come up on their pages.’

While some challenges are totally harmless, others can pose a serious risk. Like the Black-Out Challenge – also known as the ‘choking game’ – a TikTok trend which involves kids and teens deliberately cutting off their own oxygen supply and blood flow to create a temporary rush.

The 48-Hour Challenge encourages children to disappear for at least 48 hours while severing all contact with friends and family. Kids get extra credit for each social media post friends and relatives publish about their disappearance.

The Deodorant Challenge, also known as ‘frosting,’ involves teens holding an aerosol deodorant as close to the skin as possible and spray it for as long as they can withstand the pain, putting them at risk of first and second-degree burns.

The Nutmeg Challenge involves mixing large quantities of the spice with a drink in an attempt to achieve a high. It can cause hypothermia, hallucinations, coma or even death.

Elsewhere, children goad each other to take excessive amounts of medication as part of the Benadryl Challenge.

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