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Canton man sues YouTube, other websites after son's suicide 'prank' takes a near-fatal turn

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Damian Johnson
Federal lawsuit
A photo of Damian Johnson's 12-year-old son in the hospital following his attempt at the "I Killed Myself Prank." He was taken first to Graham Hospital in Canton, then life-flighted to OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria, where he remained for 10 days, including three days in a coma.

A Canton man alleges social media algorithms targeting his children based on their race influenced his son into attempting a prank that left him with permanent brain damage.

Damian Johnson is a Black single father of three. In 2021, his 12-year-old son attempted to create a "I Killed Myself Prank" video. The stunts play up the reactions of loved ones who discover a staged suicide scene as a practical joke.

"Through racially-profiling algorithms, he was directed to this 'I Killed Myself' prank in which all of the subjects were African American, and he thought it would be a good funny to prank his sister," said Matthew Bergman, an attorney representing the family in a federal lawsuit filed this month against YouTube and other companies. "So he kind of pretended to hang himself, but unfortunately, slipped and actually did hang himself. And he suffered."

The child was in a coma for three days and hospitalized for a total of 10 days before he returned home. Doctors said he suffered a hypoxic brain injury and a pinhole bleed, according to the family's lawsuit in the Central District of Illinois.

The lawsuit also alleges Johnson's two other children had harmful social media encounters and experiences.

Bergman, the founder of the Social Media Victims Law Center, said Johnson's lawsuit isn't just seeking monetary compensation for his family, but also changes at major web companies like YouTube.

"It's hard enough to raise teenagers in this day and age. And it's never been easy. But parents are paddling upstream when confronted constantly with this horrible content that their children are subjected to on a daily basis. And they have no ability to moderate that, and no ability to control that," he said. "So this lawsuit is first and foremost an effort to hold these companies accountable, and to give parents their rights back."

He said the technology for tools like age and identity verification exist now, but aren't used widely enough. The lawsuit also advocates for protections like obtaining verification from a parent or guardian before a person under 18 can use a social media product, limiting social media usage to no more than two hours a day, and restricting overnight access.

Google, YouTube's parent company, didn't respond to a request for comment on the litigation.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.