We (this includes teens) need a safe way to sext, but Snapchat isn’t it

It’s all about the context.

If your new photo-sharing app is heralded in, say, GQ or Cosmo, you might be pleased with the headline “Snapchat Makes Sexting Easy.”

A site devoted to Internet safety and parenting?

Not so much.

Snapchat is a relatively new photo-sharing app that allows users to take a photo and share it with someone for up to 10 seconds.

The photo is, at least in theory, permanently deleted when its allotted time expires.

Unless, that is, the very nimble manage to take a screenshot.

Or, apparently, unless you capture images by pressing the save button on the preview screen, according to the app’s FAQ.

The image’s sender is notified immediately if you do take a screenshot.

But, um, not to be contrarian, Snapchat, but it all kind of sounds like you can, actually, save images, yes?

Well, err… yes, actually, you can, its privacy policy says, but Snapchat isn’t to blame if your naked pink parts get spread across the Intertubes:

"Although we attempt to delete image data as soon as possible after the message is transmitted, we cannot guarantee that the message contents will be deleted in every case. For example, users may take a picture of the message contents with another imaging device or capture a screenshot of the message contents on the device screen. Consequently, we are not able to guarantee that your messaging data will be deleted in all instances. Messages, therefore, are sent at the risk of the user."

In a nutshell, the images are deleted within seconds.

Unless they’re not.

Snapchat is clearly marketed at youth.

Of course, Snapchat’s home page doesn’t explicitly say that, but as parenting magazines have pointed out, marketing photos of nubile young women in swimming pools who appear to be naked from the waterline on up, laughing and apparently covering their chests, suggest that the app is marketed at that demographic.

As does its app’s mascot, a cutesy ghost sticking its tongue out that’s named “Ghostface Chillah” in true, privileged-youth-attempting-to-sound-gangsta style.

Snapchat has received a 12+ rating from Apple for “Infrequent/Mild Sexual Content or Nudity”.

It’s already wildly popular.

Snapchat co-founder Evan Spiegel told TechCrunch that as of Oct. 29, users had shared over 1 billion photos (“snaps”) on the iOS application.

That day, the company also rolled out an Android version.

As of Monday, Snapchat was No. 3 on the list of top free photography apps, just after YouTube (No. 1) and Instagram (No. 2).

Parents aren’t going to like me for this, but I’m going to say it anyway: we need a free, fun, fast, secure sexting app.

Because face it, youth have hormones.

They’re going to sext.

In theory, ephemeral images should be a godsend for parents worried that their children are going to leave a trail of images that result in their getting bullied, as happened to Amanda Todd with the tragic result of her committing suicide; that they’ll be denied jobs when employers stumble on images of their drunken bacchanalias; or that their images will be siphoned off by parasite porn sites that steal and spread images and videos of young people.

I wish I could say that Snapchat is the app that will let them do so without lasting repercussion, but it’s clearly not. Not with a privacy policy that clearly states that images can be captured.

But there is hope in the realm of ephemeral communications.

Mike Elgan at The Cult of Mac believes that Apple is working on a vanishing social network, for one.

With such an animal, posts expire, leaving no traces in the sand once they’re no longer needed:

"I believe Apple is working on just such a social network—one in which your posts 'expire' and which enables ad hoc, temporary private networks to emerge, thrive, and then vanish."

Elgan lists a host of other such limited, vanishing social networks, including LobbyFriend, which exists within the confines of an actual hotel. Your interactions are erased once you check out.

LoKast, Karizma, Sonar and Fast Society are other examples of ad hoc temporary networks that function similarly to LobbyFriend, but with regards to concerts, conferences and parties.

It all sounds promising, but don’t put your faith in the idea that the information posted on temporary social networks will just go up in a poof of smoke, regardless of what’s insinuated by vendors such as Snapchat’s Toyopa Group.

Beyond speedy screenshot capture, you’ve got to ponder whether vendors have a grip on their security. Snapchat, for one, will send a forgotten password via email.

I reached out to discuss security with Snapchat, given that transmission of forgotten passwords via plain-text email doesn’t speak highly of a company’s security profile, to my mind, but I hadn’t heard back by the time this article posted.

I wish Snapchat were the application that we could steer our sext-happy kids to, but I don’t think we’re there yet. Given that anybody can simply take a snapshot of a device with a camera, sexting may never be safe. Naked images may always be used by bullies and perverts to humiliate and embarrass us.

I would suggest that a worthy goal is a culture in which nakedness isn’t sexualized to the degree that it is. Scandinavian societies, in which entire families and house guests enter the home’s steam bath together, naked, seem to manage.

En lieu of that type of rationalized approach to the unclothed human body, better to try, at least, to talk teenagers out of the unfortunately risky business of sexting.

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