The mother of a Pennsylvania girl who died allegedly after attempting a viral challenge has filed a federal lawsuit against TikTok and its parent company for the 10-year-old’s death.
Tawainna Anderson said her daughter, Nylah, choked herself until she passed out because of the app’s algorithm. The lawsuit claims Nylah died because a video featuring the “Blackout Challenge” appeared in her For You feed and inspired her to follow the deadly fad.
“The TikTok Defendants’ algorithm determined that the deadly Blackout Challenge was well-tailored and likely to be of interest to 10-year-old Nylah Anderson, and she died as a result,” the legal claim says.
Anderson said she found her daughter unconscious and hanging in her bedroom closet by her neck from a purse strap last December. The lawsuit alleges Nylah hung the purse from a hanger in her mother’s closet and then positioned her “head between the bag and shoulder strap and then hang herself until blacking out.” She struggled to free herself and ended up suffocating, the lawsuit says.
Nylah had watched a “Blackout Challenge” video and another with a similar choking challenge through her For You feed days before the incident, according to the complaint. Nylah died after a week in the pediatric intensive care unit.
“I cannot stop replaying this day in my head,” Anderson said during a press conference Thursday. “The unbreakable bond in our family is now shattered and void.”
Anderson warned other parents about the dangers of the app.
The other challenge encouraged viewers to place plastic wrap around their necks and hold their breath until they experienced a euphoric feeling. Anderson’s attorneys claim at least four other children have died because of the “Blackout Challenge.”
The gravamen of Anderson’s complaint is the contention that TikTok knew about the reported deaths and failed to take steps to protect users. Instead, the company used the algorithm to increase young users’ addiction to drive more revenue.
Anderson filed the product liability and negligence complaint against TikTok and ByteDance Inc. Thursday, May 12. The lawsuit says the defendants should be held accountable for “their dangerously defective product” and their “negligent conduct” as “designers, programmers, manufacturers, sellers, and/or distributors” of the product.
“Nylah Anderson was a bright, active, and innocent 10-year-old girl who fell victim to the TikTok Defendants’ predatory and manipulative app and algorithm,” the lawsuit says.
TikTok was the most downloaded nongame app in the world in 2021, reports show. It is one of five nongame apps that have reached 3 billion downloads. About 28 percent of TikTok users are under 18 years old, the lawsuit says.
Anderson’s lawyers also contend that TikTok was aware of social media’s psychological effects on children, citing a December 2021 warning by the U.S. surgeon general about the “growing concern about the impact” on children and young people’s mental health.
The lawsuit also names 22 other dangerous challenges it claims have trended on the app, including the “Fire Mirror Challenge,” which prompts viewers to spray a flammable liquid on a mirror and then set it on fire. The “Hot Water Challenge” involves pouring boiling water on someone else, and the “Fire Challenge” requires users to light themselves on fire.
Last April, 12-year-old Joshua Haileyesus died after using a shoelace to attempt the “Blackout Challenge,” his parents claim. Joshua’s twin brother found him passed out on the bathroom floor of his Colorado home and tried to resuscitate him. He was transported to a hospital where he was on life support for 19 days.
The lawsuit alleges Joshua also saw the “Blackout Challenge” on his For You feed, and so did three other dead children.
A 14-year-old Australian boy died in June after reportedly attempting the challenge, and so did a 12-year-old boy the following month. In January, a 10-year-old girl in Italy also died as a result.
Nylah’s mom told reporters Thursday she is going against the social media giant to speak for her daughter and protect other children.
“I accepted that my daughter’s voice is gone forever, so I’m going to speak for her, and the message here today is something has to change,” Anderson said. “Something has to stop because I wouldn’t want any other parent to go through what I’m going through ever since December 7.”
Before the lawsuit was filed, ByteDance issued a statement referring to the challenge as “disturbing.”
“We remain vigilant in our commitment to user safety and would immediately remove related content if found,” the statement said.
TikTok said its For You feed reflects the viewing preferences of each user and recommends the content by ranking videos based on how the user interacts with them. It offers different videos sometimes to gauge the user’s interest.
“Our recommendation system is also designed with safety as a consideration,” TikTok said.
According to a November TikTok report, 34 percent of teen users said the challenges they saw on the app included some risk but were still safe. Nearly half, or 48 percent, said the challenges were safe, and 14 percent said they were dangerous. Just 0.3 percent of teens said the challenges were “very dangerous,” TikTok said.
“We created technology that alerts our safety teams to sudden increases in violating content linked to hashtags, and we have now expanded this to also capture potentially dangerous behavior,” Tik Tok said.
TikTok previously barred content associated with the search term “Blackout Challenge” from the app, a July report by Insider shows. The company designed the app for people 13 years or older. It also offers family pairing and a version for younger children.
A May 13 search for “blackout challenge” on TikTok populates a safety warning.
“Some online challenges can be dangerous, disturbing, or even fabricated,” it says. “Learn how to recognize harmful challenges so you can protect your health and well-being.”
Data shows that an asphyxiation challenge was popular among children and teens long before TikTok. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s data show 82 American children between the ages of 6 to 19 died from “probable choking-game deaths” between 1995 to 2007. TikTok launched in 2016.