Parents who lost children to drugs sold over Snapchat are demanding the platform do more to protect youth, but the company says it’s committed to doing everything it can.
Prominent leaders of the protest movement are local parents Laura Berman and Sam Chapman, whose 16-year-old son Sammy was killed by a pill supplied by a Snapchat drug dealer in February.
Sammy thought he was taking a Xanax but actually consumed a lethal amount of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid. His parents found him dead in his bedroom the following morning.
His story is not uncommon. There are a series of families across California and the nation who all have similar tragic tales, including the parents of Alexander Neville, who lived in Orange County and died from a fentanyl overdose at age 14 in June 2020.
On June 4, a group of these families held a protest outside of Snapchat’s headquarters.
Their main demand is that Snapchat allows third-party parent-safety monitoring on its platform. They are also asking the company to be more transparent with police departments when they are investigating overdose deaths connected to drugs sold on their platform.
The protesting parents advocate for third-party monitoring program Bark, which sends parents a notification when dangerous behavior is detected on their children’s social media accounts. These behaviors include cyberbullying, sexual messages, suicidal thoughts, and drugs.
The morning of the protest Berman and Chapman had a call with Snapchat, Inc. CEO Evan Spiegel.
“He was very apologetic and felt very sorry for what had happened to our son, but he had nothing but words and excuses,” said Berman. “When I asked him why he wasn’t allowing parent monitoring software, he gave me all kinds of junk about privacy and how cumbersome it is and that they’re creating their own system.”
Snapchat, alongside popular youth applications TikTok and Discord, does not allow Bark to access children’s data.
Currently, Bark can partially or fully monitor children’s activity on around 25 different applications, including partial monitoring on Facebook and Instagram. Some of Bark’s monitoring capabilities is due to the open API of these apps, which allows third-party developers to integrate with their platforms without a formal agreement.
In response to the June 4 protest, a Snapchat spokesperson released a statement saying, “At Snap we strictly prohibit drug-related activity on our platform, aggressively enforce against these violations, and support law enforcement in their investigations. We work to be as proactive as possible in preventing, detecting and combating this type of abuse, and are constantly improving our capabilities in this area.”
Berman and Chapman said they were dissatisfied by the privacy concerns raised by Spiegel in response to his company declining to work with Bark.
“It’s because he would lose his users if parent monitoring software were there, because the reason they are there is so that they can engage in nefarious, dangerous and inappropriate acts without being caught,” said Berman, expressing her belief as to why Snapchat does not work with Bark.
Snapchat did not provide a comment specifically on Bark, but said they are actively working to create new solutions to give parents more power to protect their children.
“Our goal is to deliver tools that work effectively and reliably without compromising the security and data privacy of our users,” said the spokesperson.
Common Sense, a non-profit organization that reviews the privacy policies of digital platforms, gave Bark a 71 percent score on its privacy. This gives Bark a “warning” rating, meaning the platform does not meet Common Sense’s recommendations for privacy and security practices. Snapchat also received a “warning” rating and has an overall score of 56 percent.
Experts have raised concerns over parental monitoring software in general, citing issues both around privacy and the accuracy with which these softwares detect dangerous speech.
Protesting parents’ second major criticism of Snapchat is that the organization has a poor track record of collaborating with the police department.
“When we found our son dead, they (police officers) said that no one would be coming back to work on it, because there’s no way for them to get the information they need from Snapchat and the toxicology report won’t be done for three months,” said Chapman, adding that other affected families shared stories about their police departments struggling to receive information from Snapchat.
According to SMPD, in the case of Sammy Berman Chapman’s death, Snapchat was forthcoming with information and provided the Santa Monica Police Department with all the data they asked for. SMPD maintains that they have a collaborative relationship with Snap, Inc.
“As you know, there is a process we must follow to obtain the necessary warrants to receive information from a technology company like Snap, and even under the best of circumstances that process takes time,” said SMPD Sergeant Erika Aklufi. “The Santa Monica Police Department has no reservations about requesting a subpoena for Snap if we had another case where we needed their help.”