The families of two young girls who are said to have died as a result of a viral TikTok challenge have sued the social media platform, claiming its “dangerous” algorithms were responsible for their children’s deaths.
The parents of two girls who died in a “blackout challenge” on TikTok in 2021, which encouraged users to choke themselves until they passed out, filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Tuesday.
Represented by the Social Media Victims Law Center (SMVLC), a legal resource for parents of children harmed by social media addiction and abuse, they allege that the platform’s “dangerous algorithm intentionally and repeatedly corrupted” videos of the challenge in pushed the kids’ feeds to motivate them to take part in the challenge that ultimately cost their lives.
“TikTok must be held accountable for sending deadly content to these two young girls,” said Matthew P. Bergman, founding attorney for SMVLC. “TikTok has invested billions of dollars to intentionally create products that distribute dangerous content that it knows is dangerous and could lead to the deaths of its users.”
One victim, eight-year-old Lalani Erika Renee Walton of Temple, Texas, is described as “an extremely sweet and outgoing young girl” who “loved dressing up as a princess and playing with makeup.” She died on July 15, 2021, which police determined was “a direct result of attempting TikTok’s ‘Blackout Challenge,'” according to the complaint.
Lalani received a phone for her eighth birthday in April 2021 and “quickly became addicted to watching TikTok videos,” the complaint said. She has often posted videos of herself singing and dancing in hopes of becoming “TikTok famous.”
In July 2021, her family noticed bruising on Lalani’s neck, which she explained as an accident. Unbeknownst to her, she had started competing in the Blackout Challenge that first appeared on her feed weeks earlier.
On the day of her death, Lalani had spent hours on a family trip watching videos, including posts from the challenge.
“She also believed that posting a video of herself doing the Blackout Challenge would make her famous, so she decided to give it a try,” the complaint reads. “Lalani was eight years old at the time and didn’t appreciate or understand the dangerousness of what TikTok was encouraging her to do.”
The other victim named in the lawsuit, nine-year-old Arriani Jaileen Arroyo of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, received a phone when she was seven and used TikTok multiple times a day, according to the complaint. She became “gradually obsessed” with posting dance videos on TikTok and became “addicted” to the app.
In January 2021, Arriani’s family discussed with her an incident in which a young TikTok user died as a result of being challenged, but Arriani assured them that she would never participate in dangerous videos.
However, on February 26, 2021, her five-year-old brother noticed that she was not breathing. She was taken to a local hospital but was eventually taken off life support.
“TikTok undoubtedly knew that the deadly blackout challenge was spreading through their app and that their algorithm specifically passed the blackout challenge to children, including those who had died,” the complaint reads.
The lawsuit lists a number of complaints against TikTok, including that its algorithm encourages harmful content, allows underage users in the app, and fails to warn users or their legal guardians about the app’s addictive nature.
TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The company has been criticized in the past for allowing dangerous challenges to spread. Doctors reported that the 2021 “milk crate challenge,” which encouraged users to stack and scale milk crates, resulted in dislocated shoulders, cruciate ligament tears, and even spinal cord injuries. In 2020, a 15-year-old girl died after participating in the “Benadryl Challenge,” in which users took a large dose of antihistamines to produce hallucinogenic effects. In 2020, two minors were charged with assault after participating in the “Skull Crusher” challenge that caused a victim to have a seizure.
Lawyers for SMVLC alleged that the company knowingly allowed such content to be distributed on the platform because it increased engagement, user numbers and ultimately profits.
“TikTok prioritized greater corporate profits over the health and safety of its users, and particularly the health and safety of vulnerable children who TikTok knew or should have known to be actively using its social media product,” they said.
The Walton and Arroyo families are seeking unspecified damages and have filed for a California jury trial.