(CNN) – Some are blaming a new generation of apps for contributing to bullying; and even teen suicide.
Tricia Norman thought she was being a conscientious mom, keeping tabs on her daughter’s social media accounts. But like many parents, she found monitoring on-line communications was getting harder with things constantly changing.
The recent trend: let’s call them disappearing apps, where messages sent can easily disappear. These apps have raised alarms about being used to hide sexting or inappropriate posts.
And it’s not just parents; they’re a problem for law enforcement too, especially when something goes terribly wrong. “She had just started 6th grade.”
Rebecca Sedwick was just 12 years old. She was a good student, but school was a challenge. Her mother says she was bullied relentlessly. Her mom closed her Facebook account, pulled her out of school, but didn’t know about her cell phone messaging apps.
The last time Tricia Norman saw her daughter, Rebecca was on her cell phone. “To me she is still and always be part of this family so I try to include in everything.”
Later that night Rebecca took her own life. “When you stand at the base of a cement silo and see a 12 year old child crumpled on the ground because she jumped to her death, it changes your life forever, and when you find out bullying was behind it, that frustrates you.”
Polk County Florida Sheriff Grady Judd found out disappearing apps may have contributed to Rebecca’s anguish. One of those apps is Ask.fm; it was started in the tiny former Soviet republic of Latvia. Its website boasts more than 100 million users worldwide. Some of them were Rebecca’s bullies.
When news of her death went viral, her mom says the company deleted Rebecca’s page, making it impossible for law enforcement to see what was said the night she died.
“They deleted everything, her whole entire page.” (To this day you don’t know what was said to her?) “I have no idea what was said to her.”
In just over a year, there have been more than a dozen news reports around the world, linking suicides to bullying on Ask.fm, all of them teens. “They’re saying we don’t care if you’re victimized, we don’t care if your child is victimized.”
The company says they cooperate with law enforcement and recently added a “safety” page to its website, saying bullies are not tolerated.
In a statement to CNN the company said: “Reports of suicide cases often tend to present premature and simplified conclusions about tragic events, which are always a complex overlap of different factors.”
Suicide is complicated, and that includes the circumstances of Rebecca’s death. Plus without the original records from Ask.fm, no one can say exactly why she took her own life.
But it’s not just bullies. Hard-to-trace messaging draws all kinds of criminal activity. And there are more messaging apps emerging every day. “If it’s not stored, it doesn’t matter what the judicial process is, you’re not going to get it.”
Shawn Henry was the executive assistant director of the FBI. “There’s a term we use called going dark. Law enforcement is losing the authorized visibility into many of these sites, because they’re not maintaining, they’re not regulated to maintain data, and law enforcement is losing the ability to lawfully collect that information.”
“If we had to depend on the app owners for our criminal investigations there would be no criminal investigations.” Judd did charge two teens with contributing to rebecca’s death, but the charges were later dropped. Instead the girls went to counseling. Rebecca’s mother and Sheriff Judd are now trying to warn parents about the secret world of these free messaging apps.
“To me as it stands right now it just doesn’t, I know she was bullied I know it was horrific but that morning is what pushed her over the edge.”