Alleged assault involving teens recorded by onlookers raises social media, youth violence concerns: experts

An alleged attack by one teen on another girl, which police say was recorded by people who watched and encouraged the beating, raises questions about the role of smartphones and social media in inciting youth violence, experts say.

Winnipeg police said Thursday a 15-year-old girl is facing charges after allegedly punching and kicking a 13-year-old girl while a group of youths recorded the attack on their phones and egged her on last month.

The teen was arrested on Tuesday in connection with the April 17 assault, after police executed a search warrant at a home on Machray Avenue. She faces robbery and aggravated assault charges, a Winnipeg police news release said.

Police responded to the incident around 5:15 that day, after bystanders called with reports of a girl being kicked and punched on the ground in the area of Madison Street and Ness Avenue, west of Polo Park mall.

They told police other youths recorded the attack on their phones while “encouraging the fight,” the police service’s Thursday news release says.

Kent Dueck, executive director and founder of the non-profit Inner City Youth Alive, said the incident is “devastating” for the victim and the alleged offender.

The report that multiple youth recorded the attack and didn’t intervene should make people think about the effects of media, including social media, and smartphones on youth violence.

“Something that can be fairly benign, like a conflict between youth … you introduce social media and then it kind of just has a snowballing effect,” he said. “It’s a multiplier, unfortunately.”

Winnipeg police said the onlookers took off after officers arrived, and the victim’s backpack was taken. They found the 13-year-old unconscious in the parking lot. She was rushed to hospital in unstable condition, with serious head and face injuries, police said.

The victim and suspect knew each other and went to the area of the attack together before the unprovoked assault, according to police.

‘Kids are facing the perfect storm’

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an uptick in youth involvement in serious violent incidents, said Leena Augimeri, a Toronto-based child and youth mental health specialist who is the co-founder of SNAP (Stop Now and Plan), a program for aggressive youth and teens.

That includes high-profile incidents like a 2022 swarming attack in Toronto that left a 59-year-old man dead. Eight teenage girls were charged, one of whom pleaded guilty to manslaughter Thursday.

Augimeri said multiple factors could be behind the uptick, including isolation affecting children’s social skills, and a lack of freedom leading to anxiety and anger issues. 

Social media is also a big factor, she said.

“Our kids are facing the perfect storm. You know, there’s all kinds of things that are happening to our kids in regards to racism or mental health issues or addictions and abuse, for example,” Augimeri said.

“They’re sad, they’re stressed, and that’s where you see all these kinds of disruptive behaviour problems that we need to be concerned about.”

A portrait of a woman smiling at the camera.
Leena Augimeri is a Toronto-based child and youth mental health specialist who is the co-founder of SNAP (Stop Now and Plan), a program for aggressive youth and teens. (Submitted by Leena Augimeri)

But Augimeri added the impulse to passively observe an incident isn’t anything new, citing cases like the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in New York, which prompted research in what’s now called the “bystander effect.”

“You would think, you know, why would a child not intervene?… Why are they taking their phones out and recording this?” she said.

“We need to think about what is going on in these kids’ brains, what is going on in their well-being or emotional regulation to think that it’s OK to just observe or watch and not do anything about it.”

Augimeri said while there’s no single solution to youth violence, the first step is to gather evidence and assess what each child who is struggling actually needs.

Inner City Youth Alive’s Dueck said what’s needed are more youth resources that can act as “circuit breakers” to prevent things like the April assault.

“I think one of the big challenges in our society today is the sense of isolation. People feel like they have no place to call home,” he said. “We just need to somehow kind of increase young people’s access to kindness.”