Eighteen months ago, on September 3, 2014, a young woman in Saugus, MA saw four disturbing videos in her Snapchat app. The videos were sent to her by a high school friend, Timothy Cyckowski, and they depicted two people sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl in a wooded area. The young woman could hear Cyckowski laughing in the background as he recorded the assault.
The quick-witted young woman captured still images of the Snapchat videos and showed them to her father. Recognizing the location behind the Waybright Elementary School, they called the Saugus Police Department. When officers searched the area, they found a “severely intoxicated 16-year-old” who was having trouble breathing, had cuts and bruises over much of her body, and signs of sexual assault.
Nine days later, Cyckowski was arrested and charged with “kidnapping, two counts of assault to rape, and posing a child in a state of nudity.” He was initially held without bail but subsequently released.
In an interesting twist, police also brought charges against Matthew Cyckowski, Timothy’s father. Investigators allege that the father replaced the SIM chip in his phone with the one from his son’s, and turned that device over to the police. He then allegedly destroyed his son’s phone. In October 2014, an assistant state’s attorney told the presiding judge that an employee for the Mass. Dept. of Children and Families overheard Matthew Cyckowski boasting in the hallway. According to the DCF worker, Cyckowski said that “They’re never going to find his phone, I got rid of it. I gave them my phone.” He was charged on one count of misleading police.
One of the two assailants, 18-year-old Kaitlyn Bonia, turned herself in to police on September 11. The other attacker, 19-year-old Rashad Deihim, initially fled out-of-state but was later arrested. Both were held without bail as “dangerous persons” until April 2015, when the victim wrote a letter to the court that said in part that “No one [raped] me. Everything that happened was consented [sic].” Nonetheless, both Bonia and Deihim were ordered to remain in home confinement and the indictments against them “kidnapping, two counts of assault with intent to rape, posing a child in a state of nudity and four counts of indecent assault and battery on a person 14 or over” are still in force.
On March 14, 2016, Cyckowski pleaded guilty in Lynn Juvenile Court to three separate criminal charges: “posing a child in the nude, dissemination of obscene material and kidnapping[.]” He was sentenced to confinement with the Department of Youth Services until he turns 20 and then will serve four years probation.
Reflections and Discussion Points
From a Parenting Perspective, Snapchat Is a Dangerous and Disturbing App: It’s not fair, of course, to blame the Snapchat app in any way for the fact that this assault(?) occurred. But it is fair to ask whether the app in some way, however subtle, encouraged the recording and distribution of the sexual activity. The distinguishing characteristic of Snapchat is the “ephemeral” nature of the content produced using the app; once a photo or video is viewed, it theoretically disappears for good. (As I have discussed frequently, however, that “ephemerality” is “eph-ing” specious.) As this case illustrates, it is possible to capture still photos from a Snapchat video; if the young woman had been quick enough, she might also have been able to do a screen capture of the entire video. Presumably Cyckowski was notified that the recipient had captured screen-shots of his videos but there obviously is nothing he could do about that.
Empathy, Ethics, and Morality: Let’s put aside for the moment any discussion of the morality and ethics of the two teens who allegedly assaulted their younger schoolmates; the focus of this blog is not on criminality in general but the intersection of technology and various types of misconduct. What interests me is understanding the role that technology plays in someone’s decision to do something immoral or unethical, and this case offers a perfect illustration of the potentially corrosive effects that are occurring. What prompted Cyckowski to document the assault using his smartphone? Did the act of recording the assault in some way distance him from what was taking place? And what was the purpose of distribution — boasting, reporting, or the desire to add electronic sexual assault to the physical abuse of the girl?
There are doctoral theses lurking as yet unwritten on the myriad effects that the Internet, digital pornography, social media, and video games are having on society in general and our children in particular. In the absence of my own statistical research and appropriate analysis, I am nonetheless willing to argue that online content, some of it incredibly graphic and sexually explicit, is both normalizing and framing the real-world behavior of children. I think that it is also inarguable that technology is reducing the level of empathy in our children in a number of ways, the two most important of which are 1) the diminution of human contact (facial expressions, eye contact, and simple touch) during critical periods of development and 2) the inherent distancing that occurs when we view the world through a lens. Digital devices “flatten” the real world by presenting it on 2-dimensional screens, the very same screens on which children view the increasingly immersive worlds of video games. The line between the two is inevitably blurred for too many children.
Regardless of Cyckowski’s legal culpability, his actions demonstrated a shocking lack of empathy. Not only did he watch the event without intervening but he actually recorded it as it occurred. That he then went a step further and distributed multiple Snaps of the assault helps to underscore the serious questions that parents and educators should confront.
The Nixonian Postulate: The cover-up is always worse. While Nixon and various members of his staff may have successfully erased one of the more incriminating conversations in the Watergate tapes, the overall effort to cover up the myriad dirty tricks pulled by the White House and CREEP (Committee to Re-Elect the President) were a dismal failure. Attempts to cover up things in the digital era are even more likely to fail. Digital data is incredibly durable and far too easy to recover thanks to the increasingly sophisticated forensics tools available to law enforcement. Matthew Cyckowski is learning this lesson the hard way. Even without his hallway confession, it would have taken police investigators mere minutes to figure out that the phone he provided did not belong to Timothy (for starters, Matthew probably did not even have Snapchat installed). More importantly, far too much other data on the phone belong to Matthew as opposed to Timothy; merely switching the SIM chip does not change all of the installed programs, stored information, etc.
Yes, Matthew may have deprived the police of the actual videos (which almost certainly could have been recovered from Timothy’s phone, Snapchat’s promises notwithstanding), but as this case makes clear, that is not an impediment to a successful prosecution. The only thing he actually accomplished was adding another case (his) to the docket.