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By now, most parents have heard of Snapchat, the phenomenally popular new messaging app that allows users to annotate and send photos and very short videos to their friends. Unlike other messages, Snapchats are supposed to disappear in ten seconds. Kids who are tired of having their lives searched and analyzed on Facebook love that spontaneity. As one college blogger put it, Snapchat is fun “without the terrifying permanence of the rest of our technology.”
In one way, this is good news for parents who have been trying to convince kids to be discrete about what they post on Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites. Most young people are keenly aware that Facebook can be reviewed by everyone from romantic partners to college admissions officers, employers and even law enforcement. The Timeline feature made it even more obvious that Facebook is a biographical record, and many people, including teens, started using it for what Jenna Wortham of the New York Times called “success theater,” a cautious, curated version of their lives.
As everyone knows, real life is messier than that, especially in adolescence. Snapchat is appealing in part because it allows kids to share their ever-changing moods without having to worry that a fleeting moment will be held against them. Of course, any alert parent can see where this is going: 1) Part of what prompts all those moods is the awakening of sexual feelings, and 2) You can never assume anything digital is truly gone.
Most of the 5 million messages being sent every day on Snapchat are not sexual. Instead, they are quirky, momentary impressions of things the sender finds goofy, funny or touching. Sharing these tidbits with friends does deepen relationships. The youthful founders of Snapchat seem wise beyond their years when they write, “There is value in the ephemeral. Great conversations are magical … because they are shared, enjoyed, but not saved.”
The same thing could be said about romance and even sex. And that’s why Snapchat creates concerns for adults who can easily imagine impulsive teens using the service to send provocative or even obscene pictures of themselves. This is where parents need to take a deep breath. Despite media attention on the subject, sexting is not rampant among teenagers. The most authoritative research study from the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire found that, among children 10 to 17 years old, only 1 percent had shared explicit images of themselves or others, and only 7 percent had received such an image.
Some people worry that Snapchat will make such behavior more tempting because it promises to erase all evidence. Although parents may long to shove this genie back into its bottle, that’s not possible. Facebook has already introduced its own self-destruct program called Poke and there are other imitators in the work. A better strategy is to help children think through the rewards and risks of Snapchat and its competitors. Here are some suggestions.
Ask. Don’t assume your child is using Snapchat to send or receive provocative pictures. Download the program so you understand how it works. Then ask your child about his or her experiences. Are the kids at school using the app? What kind of photos does your child like to send? What kind of images has he or she received? Is the self-destruct feature exciting or annoying?
Encourage. There are many creative and constructive ways to use Snapchat. In fact, the vision described on the Snapchat website is actually quite wholesome: “We believe in sharing authentic moments with friends. It’s not all about fancy vacations, sushi dinners, or beautiful sunsets. Sometimes it’s an inside joke, a silly face, or greetings from a pet fish … Sharing those moments should be fun. Communication is more entertaining when it’s with the people who know us best. And we know that no one is better at making us laugh than our friends.” This could be a prompt for dinner table conversation or a quote that hangs on the refrigerator.
Inform. Be sure your child understands that anything digital can be replicated. Although Snapchat reduces the likelihood that a photo will be distributed without permission, it doesn’t eliminate it completely. The recipient of a message can always grab the screen shot. Yes, the sender will be notified if this happens but, if the image is compromising, the damage will be done. Recipients can also use another camera to surreptitiously capture a titillating image. The bottom line is that sending another person a photo of private parts is always ill-advised. There simply is no such thing as “safe sext.”
Enforce. If you didn’t make rules when you gave your child a cell phone, now is a good time to be very clear about acceptable and unacceptable use. A sample contract is available at http://tinyurl.com/2au7l22. Modify it as needed to reflect your family’s values and your child’s level of maturity.
These conversations will go better if parents tune into the underlying appeal of Snapchat. Today’s kids intuitively understand that every photo doesn’t need to be saved. Every whim doesn’t need to be scrutinized. Every thought doesn’t deserve a permanent record. At the same time, as every happily married couple knows, sharing these transitory moments really can strengthen a relationship. As is so often the case, parents need to provide the information and structure that will allow children to harness the potential of Snapchat without stumbling into its pitfalls.
Carolyn Jabs, M.A., raised three computer savvy kids including one with special needs. She has been writing Growing Up Online for ten years. Visit www.growing-up-online.com.