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Parents sue TikTok over deaths of two girls after 'blackout challenge'

It's the second time families have sued TikTok over the deaths of children who were said to have taken part in the "blackout challenge."
Image: TikTok London Office
TikTok's London office. Tolga Akmen / AFP via Getty Images file

The parents of two young girls who died after they were said to have taken part in the “blackout challenge” on TikTok have sued the popular social media app — the second time the platform has faced a lawsuit over the same challenge.

Lalani Erika Renee Walton, 8, of Temple, Texas, and Arriani Jaileen Arroyo, 9, of Milwaukee, died last year after they were both said to have tried to do the blackout challenge, which encouraged social media users to choke themselves until they pass out, according to the lawsuit, filed June 30 in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

The children's parents are represented by the Social Media Victims Law Center, a law firm that "works to hold social media companies legally accountable for the harm they inflict on vulnerable users," according to their website. The law firm did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The complaint said that the platform's algorithm failed to properly warn users and their parents and that it intentionally pushed an "unacceptably dangerous video" on the girls' "For You" pages, which show users videos they may like based on their previous interactions with the app.

“TikTok has specifically curated and determined that these Blackout Challenge videos — videos featuring users who purposefully strangulate themselves until losing consciousness — are appropriate and fitting for small children,” the lawsuit said.

A TikTok spokesperson declined to comment on the lawsuit, referring NBC News to its previous statement in December after the mother of a 10-year-old girl alleged to have died after she took part in the viral challenge launched a wrongful death lawsuit against the social media app and its parent company, ByteDance.

"This disturbing ‘challenge,’ which people seem to learn about from sources other than TikTok, long predates our platform and has never been a TikTok trend,” TikTok said in a statement. “We remain vigilant in our commitment to user safety and would immediately remove related content if found. Our deepest sympathies go out to the family for their tragic loss.” 

Internet challenges have been a growing source of panic for parents and doctors alike who are concerned that it can potentially cause serious injury.

Some that appear to have evolved from TikTok include the milk crate challenge and the Benadryl challenge, which were both cited in the lawsuit as other examples of the platform's algorithm promoting dangerous behavior. There has been little evidence of the latter as a widespread challenge, and the platform disabled both the “Benadryl” and “BenadrylChallenge” hashtags to prevent copycats.

According to the complaint, Lalani got her first phone when she turned 8 last year and quickly became addicted to TikTok. On July 15, 2021, after Lalani and her stepmother returned home from a road trip, Lalani was told to clean up her room while her stepmother rested before they left the house again to swim.

When her stepmother woke up, she found Lalani in her room with a rope around her neck, the suit said.

Authorities told her stepmother that Lalani "did not commit suicide" and that she had been watching videos of the blackout challenge on TikTok and had tried it herself, the complaint said.

Arriani was 7 when she got her phone and also quickly became addicted to watching videos on the social media app, according to the suit. In January 2021, Arriani told her mother about a young girl in Italy who died attempting the social media challenge, to which her mother told her she was not allowed to attempt such a thing.

About a month later, on Feb. 26, Arriani was found hanging from a leash in her home, the complaint said.

The lawsuit described Lalani as an "extremely sweet and outgoing" girl who "loved dressing up as a princess and playing with makeup." She "didn't shy away from the spotlight," and when she grew older, "she wanted to be a famous rapper, like Cardi B."

The complaint described Arriani as "an active child and enjoyed playing basketball, kickball, and riding her bicycle."

"She loved to dance and was enrolled in a ballet class at school," it said.