Snapchat and Sexting: Navigating Technological Conversations (part 1 of 2)

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One of the fun things about writing this blog is learning about current social trends that my formerly un-hip self would have completely avoided.

Today, I present you: Snapchat.

snapchat sexting familiesSnapchat provides a unique way of viewing photos (cleverly known as “snaps”), which have a shelf life of 1-10 seconds once sent. After the ten seconds of viewing, the image file, Snapchat reports, disappears, connoting an organizational value for privacy: I can send you something I generally wouldn’t want others to see, and in 10 seconds, it will be gone. Snapchat recently added “Snapchat Stories“, a feature that allows images or videos to be seen and commented on for 24 hours. A group of researchers from the University of Washington polled university students this year to determine their favorite usages for Snapchat. 60% of users reported using Snapchat primarily to share funny stories or images. Snapchat reports that 700 million images and videos and 500 million Snapchat Stories are shared daily, making Snapchat one of the more popular social media apps.

Snapchat has been involved in quite a few legal issues in its three year existence. Snapchat created a bit of false advertising in their report of disappearing images. Most people can take screenshots with their phones as a way to save images. Richard Hickman of Decipher Forensics discovered that images and videos can be restored by removing a file extension that was keeping images from being viewed; like any good entrepreneur, he created a how-to video and dispersed it throughout his community. Others have created apps, such as Snapbox and Snapchat Saver, that allow you to save Snapchat images. Snapchat seems to have made limited efforts to adapt its product following these discoveries and creations.

Snapchat also carries a bit of an image problem around sexting, the dissemination of sexually suggestive, provocative, and exploitative material (either visual or non-visual) through technology. Although the University of Washington study reports only 14% of users had ever sent a sexually suggestive image, others report an increase of underground activity. The Daily Dot, a news source updating readers about Internet and technological-related issues, recently exposed an amateur porn community that through the venue Snapchat Stories. Author Cooper Fleishman writes:

It’s not clear if Snapchat is aware of BoyConfessions [the name of the pornographic community] and its ilk. If so, the company could be in a jam. To discourage users from spreading questionable porn, Snapchat may have to compromise its core principle—user privacy—and take an active interest in what its users are sending.

There is nothing stopping two users from snapping each other private X-rated photos, regardless of user age. Snapchat has never interfered with that. It gets messier when underage users are snapping nude photos to aggregator accounts, whose owners edit the boys’ photos into videos and pimp them out publicly. Once it’s out there, anyone can screengrab the nudes, and the person in the video won’t be notified. Those screenshots “can, and will, be everywhere,” John warns.

Sexting is incredibly challenging to do research on for two reasons: the general under-reporting of sexual activities amongst users and the easy accessibility for minors to use online material such as Snapchat (and advertise themselves as over the age of 18).

For example, Shari Kessel Schneider and others reported in 2011 that only 13% of Boston-area high school students (from a pool of about 23,000) have received a sext, with only 10% forwarding sexts to peers. On the other hand, Donald Strassberg, professor of psychology at the University of Utah, reported a few years ago that from a pool of 600 students at a private high school (unknown if the high school was religiously-affiliated, although if it was, that makes these numbers more staggering), 40% had received a sexually-suggestive or explicit image, with almost 20% admitting to have sent a sext. It seems that students are more willing to admit that they’ve received a sext as opposed to sending one; Andy Phippen, professor of social responsibility at England’s University of Plymouth, suggests that teenagers are far more likely to suggest that they have friends who sext than admitting that they themselves sext.

Technological advances have created mediums for teenagers to explore their sexuality, and in Monday’s post, we’ll discuss a recent study that catalogs the usage of mobile devices for sexting purposes. (It’s funny to mention a “recent study”, considering the two that I mentioned in the previous paragraph happened in the last three years, but it’s important to keep tabs on the constant, rapid adaptation of technology and social media.) Part one of this series is addressed to parents, not in a way that creates paranoia, but in a way that begins honest conversations with teenagers about the collision between sexual development and technology. Here are three ideas that may help launch these conversations. Note that these conversations, as all attempts at connection between parent and teenager, need to be organic and give your adolescent the perception that you have something to learn from him/her.

1) Parents, do your homework. Visit the support pages of social media sites, such as Tumblr, Instagram, and ooVoo, and learn how their products work. Maintain curiosity about these products, and ask yourself how these social media sites may enhance connection.

2) Establish boundaries around mobile device usage. Create agreements with your teenagers so that they can have cell phones/ipads/etc. as long as you have their password. Join Instagram and require that your teenager adds you to their connection list. Monitor what apps get downloaded, and ask your adolescent to show you how they work (again, from a place of curiosity, not judgment).

3) Learn about the avatars of your teenagers. What kind of online/social media presence is your teenager trying to make? Ask your teenagers how they want others to perceive them online. Adolescence is about trying on different potential identities, and social media sites give teenagers a structured venue to explore these different personae, so learn about and show compassion toward their efforts.