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How Kids Are Misusing Snapchat to Sext and Cyberbully

A parent's guide to the dangers of Snapchat

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Updated June 30, 2014

Teen holding cell phone
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There is a smartphone app on the market that is gaining popularity with tweens and teens. Originally designed for adults, this app known as Snapchat, allows users to text picture messages to friends that disappear from the phone in 7 to 10 seconds after the message is opened.

How Kids Are Using Snapchat

Aside from the fact that tweens and teens are fascinated with apps in general, what has piqued teen interest is the idea that any pictures sent will disappear forever. While some teens may send harmless pictures of themselves being goofy, others are using the app for much more insidious purposes.

For example, some kids are sexting, or sending sexually explicit photos, thinking they have nothing to worry about because the photos disappear from the app. Meanwhile, other kids are snapping shots in locker rooms and bathrooms and sending those. Meanwhile, other kids are sneaking around trying to catch embarrassing shots of others to send on to someone else. Still others are using it to cyberbully. They send something mean and then the message disappears without any evidence that the bullying took place.

The general thinking is, “what’s the harm – the picture is gone in 10 seconds.” But that’s not always the case. While the images do disappear from the app itself, there’s nothing built into the app to stop kids on the receiving end from taking a screenshot and saving it or using another device to take a picture of their cell phone screen.

There are even some “hacks” that utilize the phone’s screenshot capabilities and the multitasking bar. And in some instances, these screenshots can be taken secretly without the sender finding out.

The problem with apps like Snapchat is that it feeds into the already growing problems of sexting and cyberbullying. In fact, both are very real problems among teens.

What Parents and Administrators Can Do

All things considered, this is not an app that parents or school administrators should ignore. It is probably a good idea for parents to be proactive in talking with their kids about the dangers of misusing an app like Snapchat. Explain how other kids are misusing the app and how it could backfire if they use it.

It’s also a good idea to discuss the legal and emotional consequences of sexting. Kids need to know early on that this is a problem they will have to face at some point. In fact, research shows that sexting is becoming a big problem among teens. For instance, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project as many as 15 percent of teens between the ages of 12 and 17 say that they have received a “sext” from someone they know. Meanwhile, 4 percent of those teens indicate that they also have participated in sexting by sending nude or nearly nude images of themselves to someone else via text message. Meanwhile, another study found that 28% of 14- to 19-year-olds said they had sent a nude picture of themselves through text or e-mail.

As a result, it is wise for parents and administrators to educate kids on the risks of sexting before they engage in it. Use examples of kids whose lives were severely impacted by the dissemination of sexually explicit messages. And be sure kids know that once something is sent or posted, they have no control over where it goes or what happens to it.

For instance, a private message sent to a friend or a significant other can end up in the hands of the wrong people. When this happens kids are at risk for cyberbullying, relational aggression and sexual bullying.

Parents also should teach their kids digital etiquette as well as remind them to think before they post. Kids should always ask themselves if what they are posting or saying is something they would want their parents, their teacher, their religious leader, their grandparents or their coach to see.

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