Snapchat, the relatively new online app that allows the user to send a message or photograph and have it disappear one to ten seconds after it is opened, is now processing 60 million messages a day.
Useful for sexting, the creators make the case that it has more appeal than just that.
A user can write things that they may not wish to make part of their permanent record and this affords a candor and level of privacy not matched by most other social network offerings.
It is not hard to see, at least now that it is up and running, what an appeal this would have for teenagers and others who want to say what they want to say to friends without any record left behind to be parsed and criticized. In some minds, Snapchat is an antidote to the highly self-conscious promotion of self that is often found on Facebook.
By now it has been well reported that the secrecy feature can be defeated by hitting the screen shot within the few seconds allotted and videos can be retrieved by the knowledgeable. It is apparently harder than it seems because you actually have to keep a finger on the screen to see the photo or message. It can be done with a special effort but if the user is exchanging information with a trusted friend the risk may seem slight.
Slight or not, the staggering growth of usage of Snapchat, founded in May 2011, says many users are not that concerned about their privacy being breached. It is interesting that people are more open and willing to share private thoughts and photographs solely because the information is only present for the blink of an eye.
This way of communicating increases feelings of closeness for a brief moment. The people exchanging the information do not need to actually talk or digest what has been exchanged. A person can in one moment both put themselves out there while being securely propped far away from any kind of relationship accountability. In a way, they can pretend it never even occurred.
When teenagers overly rely on such cotton candy modes of communicating intimate details of their life or sexual material, they miss the opportunity to learn the skills and develop the confidence needed to build deeper relationships through direct communication.
Most parents want to keep their teenagers as far away from sexting as possible. The trouble is their teenagers may not share the same concerns even if they patiently listen and appear to be in full agreement. They may understand that what they post may come back to haunt them and that they lose control of pictures when they send or forward them. They may understand these potentialities on one level, but nevertheless act out in an impetuous moment. For some, the risk itself is part of the attraction. At times they may wish to avoid the risk, but in certain other circumstances they will plunge ahead.
Teenagers generally like talking about relationships. Asking them what they might miss out on if they overly engage such technology may start a dialogue. Talk about how meaningful relationships with trust and respect are difficult to develop and take time. There are no short cuts for real relationship development and if it seems there is, as in the case of Snapchat, they may be entering risky territory.
Parents who promote an ongoing dialogue with teenagers have greater influence. Rules about what teenagers may and may not do are fine. But, if rules are used to shut down conversation, parents are missing a good opportunity.
In some cases, teens are very knowledgeable. Others may be technically proficient but have big gaps of understanding when it comes to the potential for risk of self and in the ability to develop fulfilling relationships.
Stay abreast, keep the conversation going, start early and realize the goal is independence, and distressing as it may be, that often means some risk.