Is SnapChat the Perfect App for Teen Sexting and Cyberbullying?

Photo of teens looking at a cell phone picture.It’s hard to imagine a smartphone app that enables teen sexting more than SnapChat. The app, which allows users to text picture messages to friends that disappear after a brief, user-defined period of time, pratically encourages teens to engage in behavior that they may regret later.

What’s most dangerous about the SnapChat app is the product’s central selling point—the idea that pictures sent will disappear forever. If the images disappear forever, a teen might think, they don’t have to worry about them. However, while the images may disappear from within the app itself, there’s nothing to stop someone from taking a picture of their cell phone to capture a SnapChat image.

Moreover, even SnapChat itself admits that not all images may be deleted as they claim! The app’s Privacy Policy makes this clear: “Although we attempt to delete image data as soon as possible after (a) message is transmitted,” the policy says, “we cannot guarantee that the message contents will be deleted in every case.”

As an increasingly popular photo sharing app, SnapChat will likely be around for the foreseeable future. Considering this, the app can’t be ignored by parents or school administrators, as sexting is an activity that seems to be on the rise among teenagers.

Although it has been somewhat hyped by the media over the past few years, sexting is a very real phenomenon among teens. In December 2009, the Pew Research Center reported that 15% of teens aged 12-17 surveyed on their cell phone use said that they had received a “sext” from someone they know. 4% of the same group reported that they had sent “sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images or videos of themselves to someone else via text messaging.”

Since that landmark study was released, more data has emerged, and it suggests that teen sexting is on the rise. For example, a study published in the July 2012 issue of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine reported that 28% of the 14 to 19 year olds surveyed said that they had “sent a naked picture of themselves through text or e-mail.”

So, how can parent and administrators help teens avoid sexting with apps like SnapChat? A recent Chicago Tribune article on bullying suggests some points to consider. Experts quoted in the article counsel parents to assume that teenagers aren’t going to tell them whether they are being bullied. It’s not hard to imagine this being true when it comes to sexting; obviously, no teen would tell their parents that they’re engaging in sexually explicit behavior. The experts also say that parents should realize that embarrassment or shame might be keeping teens from reporting bullying. This can also be true when it comes to sexting, especially if an embarrassing photo has been spread around to a teen’s classmates.

Proactively talking with teens in a constructive and non-accusatory way may help them see the consequences of misusing apps like SnapChat. An anonymous communication program may also help teens come forward to talk about incidents of sexting that would otherwise go unreported.

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