Fatal stabbing after Snapchat message: How to respond to online abusers and bullies

Stories of violence and online abuse related to the messaging app Snapchat have made the news this week. What can parents and teens do to cope with cyber-bullies?

Some users of the photo messaging application Snapchat have a lot to answer for this week after messages sent via the service resulted in both a teen’s fatal stabbing in South Carolina and a family from Minnesota feeling like they had to resort to using YouTube to fight back against racist bullying of their daughter.

Snapchat is an app available on both Android and Apple mobile devices. It can send texts, photos, or videos which are only available for up to 10 seconds. After 10 seconds the image or video is deleted from the phone and the company's servers.

The application’s main selling point is what some say makes it the perfect playground for cyber-bullies to dominate.

Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that Matthew Joseph Fischer, 16, of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina fatally stabbed a fellow student over a Snapchat message sent to his girlfriend.

Mr. Fischer spotted the message from Lucas Cavanaugh, 17, on her iPod Sunday, AP reports. The contents of the message have not been released.

"The defendant took the iPod and contacted the victim. Words were exchanged at which point the defendant told the victim 'Come over 'and 'I'll kill you man,'" according to an affidavit.

Cavanaugh came to the girl's house and got into a fight with Fischer.

"During the altercation, the defendant produced a knife from his right pant pocket and proceeded to stab the victim," the affidavit said.

Meanwhile, in Prior Lake, Minnesota, father Brad Knudson reacted to racial hate and bullying of his child by calling out his daughter's bullies via YouTube video using a Snapchat work-around, recording the incoming messages and playing racist voice mails as part of his nearly 6-minute YouTube video (this video contains graphic language).

“We have a very beautiful African-American daughter that we were very fortunate enough to adopt 11 years ago. We've dealt with a little bit of racism, you know, stares, things like that when she calls us Mom or Dad, but she didn't notice so we just blew it off because it was directed towards us,” he says in the video.

According to Knudson, on New Year's Eve two girls from Prior Lake High School sent his daughter a sting of hate-filled Snapchat video messages. 

After it was brought to his attention, he and his wife recorded one of the incoming Snapchats with their own phones. 

In his YouTube video message Knudson talks candidly about the family's fears over the emotional damage often done by cyber-bullying.

"I just had to get this off my chest, I just don't know what to do, other than say I love my daughter and I don't want her committing suicide because of this," Knudson said in the video.

A case in point is the British teen The Mirror reported on back in September of 2013, age 14, who reportedly attempted to overdose after being taunted for months on Facebook and Twitter and being pushed over the edge by the immediacy and rapid-fire abuse via SnapChat.

“I had messages on Snapchat saying things like ‘I want to fight you’ and ­another saying ‘I’m going to smash your braces out’,” the girl told The Mirror. “But then they disappear from your phone after only a few seconds.”

Sameer Hinduja a Professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at  Florida Atlantic University and Co-Director of the Cyberbullying Research Center in Jupiter, Florida said in a phone interview, “While this is happening on multiple platforms, intuitively, you and I can say SnapChat is a very promising platform for people with hateful, hurtful agenda, who want to get away with no evidence being left behind.”

“I can imagine being that father in Minnesota and getting very emotional as I try to collect proof, evidence, and am thwarted by this app,” Mr. Hinduja said. “I would get very emotional and frustrated. This application may indeed heighten those emotions in victims and those trying to protect them.”

“It’s easy to get overwhelmed, particularly against the backdrop of suicides that are continuing to take place with the growing popularity and misuses of social media platforms and this app,” Hinduja said.

Hinduja added, "While it is likely that the vast majority of those using Snapchat are doing so for positive reasons, there are those who are making the most of the way it makes evidence vanish."

According to the website for the No Bullying organization which has a page dedicated to SnapChat and the downside to the disappearing ink type features of the application, “the fight against cyber-bullying is constantly changing as new pieces of technology become popular among teens. With the introduction of SnapChat just two years ago, it has become a popular method for teens to keep track of each other. In addition to keeping in touch, though, many teens are using this tool to bully other individuals with a reduced risk of getting caught. However, when this application is used responsibly, it can be a fun experience for teens instead of a painful one.”

According to a 2014 No Bullying survey of more than 10,000 young people:

7 in 10 respondents have been victims of cyber-bullying.

37% of them are experiencing cyber-bullying on a highly frequent basis.

20% of young people are experiencing extreme cyber-bullying on a daily basis.

Young people were found to be twice as likely to be cyber-bullied on Facebook as on any other social network.

54% of young people using Facebook reported that they have experienced cyber-bullying on the social network.

The Pacer Institute’s National Bullying Prevention Center online offers a parent’s guide to helping kids cope with cyber-bullying.

Hinduja said he does not recommend getting off the app, but rather, learning how to take control and fight back via evidence collection and reporting.

“Learn to do a screen grab on your phone so you can collect evidence,” he advises. “Then report the abuse to SnapChat, the school, and local law enforcement. 

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