Snapchat Under Fire When Sextortion Scheme Leads to Young Boy’s Death 

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When Betsy Hauptman found her 13-year-old son, Timothy Barnett, dead from an apparent suicide, she couldn’t have known the nightmare was just beginning. In the early morning of April 6, 2023, her husband was leaving for work and spied someone “sleeping in the yard.” He called his wife, advising her to lock the doors and check on the children. Not long after, Betsy made the horrific connection – the person “sleeping” in the yard was her son, dead by his own hand. 

It wasn’t until the fall of that same year that Betsy uncovered the motive behind her son’s suicide. Young Timothy was the victim of a Snapchat sextortion scheme. 

Betsy and her husband thought they were responsibly monitoring Timothy’s social media and online presence. They performed regular and random “spot checks” on their children’s phones at least twice weekly to ensure they were safe online. However, during one of these checks on Timothy’s phone in November 2022, Hauptman found an inappropriate video from a stranger on Snapchat. 

Betsy took Timothy’s phone away for several months and discussed “the whole sex trafficking aspect” of social media interactions. In January, after Timothy agreed to tell his parents if he ever encountered material like the video again, Betsy returned his phone. 

Betsy describes a heartbreakingly ordinary 13-year-old who was “rough and tumble,” loved baseball, and was willing to step in as “the man of the house” and make her coffee every morning. He played the saxophone and “craved attention” like the middle child always seems to. He was bright and “lit up the room when he walked in.”  

Sextortion is a crime most often targeting kids under 18. Adults coerce children and teenagers into sending explicit images online, exploiting their vulnerability. This exploitation can occur on any communication platform, such as social media, messaging apps, or gaming platforms.

Offenders often start by pretending to be someone the victim’s age to create a false sense of trust. Once they have compromising images or videos, they threaten to publish them or use violence to coerce the victim into producing more explicit content. The shame, fear, and confusion experienced by victims often prevent them from seeking help or reporting the abuse. 

Most victims of sextortion are under the age of 18, with teenage males aged 14-17 and male adults aged 18-30 being particularly at risk. Organized criminal gangs, often based overseas and motivated by financial gain, typically carry out this crime.  

A variant of sextortion involves offenders receiving sexually explicit material from the child and then threatening to release it unless the victim sends money or gift cards. The requested amount varies, and the offender may release the material regardless of payment. Tragically, this threat has led to an alarming number of suicides. 

Now, Betsy and her husband are suing Snapchat for the wrongful death of their son. They, along with their attorney, Joe Cunningham, say that the social media platform’s design makes it far too easy for schemes like sexploitation.  

Snapchat allows users to send photos and messages that “disappear” once they are opened, although users can choose to extend the visibility of their messages. The complaint states that Snapchat’s limited display time encourages users to send photos depicting deviant behavior. Examples include sexting, cyberbullying, underage alcohol consumption, and illicit drug use.  

Although Snapchat is designed to make messages disappear after a set time, recipients can still save or record them at will. The lawsuit explains that this feature is particularly harmful to young users who trust Snapchat’s claims when sending photos and discover that recipients can save these images or videos. This often results in sexual exploitation. 

A 2016 survey of pre-teens and teens aged 12-17 found that unwanted content, such as explicit images, was frequently received by users, predominantly females, on the app. 

South Carolina State Rep. Brandon Guffey, who lost his 17-year-old son to suicide in 2022 after a sextortion scheme, has discussed their similar experiences with Hauptman. Guffey sued Meta after his son encountered a sextortionist posing as a girl on Instagram. He criticized social media companies like Snap for allowing minors to agree to contract terms without adequate protections. Guffey pointed out that Snap acknowledges that two-thirds of their teen users have been targeted for sextortion, yet they have no safeguards in place and have exacerbated the issue by adding AI. 

It is this type of scheme, and others like it, that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis hopes to stop with legislation aimed at banning social media for young kids. Florida’s regulations may seem extreme, but they may save countless teenage lives, like Timothy’s, by adding a layer of protection between social media criminals and the nation’s most vulnerable population.