A popular app among young people these days is Snapchat. It’s an Android and iOS app that allows users to capture and send photos and short videos that self-destruct after a certain amount of time.
When users send a message, they get to decide how long it will live (between one and 10 seconds) on the receiver's device. After that, it's history… or so the sender thinks.
Why young people like Snapchat
There are all sorts of things people like to share for immediate consumption using Snapchat, ranging from wacky facial expressions to pictures of a meal they're about to eat. It's a way to share a moment with a friend, and in a way, it's a bit of an antidote to traditional social networking, which is kind of permanent.
In fact, the motivation for creating the service, according to founder Evan Spiegel, was to create a service that provided more privacy than Facebook or other social networks.
Saving images from Snapchats
Snapchat does not save received messages, but Apple's iOS and Google's Android smartphone operating systems do allow you to take screenshots. (It's also possible to take a picture of the screen with another camera.) Snapchat tries to notify the person taking the picture if it determines that a screen has been captured, though there are ways around that too.
While it is certainly not the primary use-case of the app, there have been reports about Snapchat being used for "sexting"-taking naked or sexually suggestive pictures of oneself and sending them to someone else. And some worry that, with screen capture, these pictures could wind up being circulated on the Internet.
Snapchat for kids
In compliance with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), the full interactive version of Snapchat is meant for people ages 13 or older. COPPA prohibits commercial sites and apps from collecting personally identifiable information from children under 13, which includes photographs.
Kids who try to sign up for Snapchat but are under 13 years of age can still use the app, but they’re not able to create a friends list or send information, including Snapchat images.
This kid-friendly version, called SnapKidz, lets kids take photos on their mobile devices and draw on their pictures, but the app prohibits them from sharing the images. Nevertheless, parents need to know that any pictures saved on a device can be sent to others via email or uploaded to a social networking service via other apps.
The bottom line for parents
My advice for parents is to talk with your kids about Snapchat. Don't lecture them, don't panic and don't expect the worst. Just ask them if they use the app and what they're doing with it.
As a parent, know that technology changes and apps and services come and go. But the basic principles of privacy, security and safety don't change. Kids should be aware that there are consequences to their online actions and that anything that's digital can be stored, copied and shared, even if you intend to only share it privately.
Chances are your kid is using Snapchat for innocent fun, but it never hurts to calmly impart a little adult wisdom.
Internet safety advocate Larry Magid is an author, journalist, co-founder of ConnectSafely.org and founder of SafeKids.com. His technology reports and child online safety expertise are often called upon from sources such as CBS News, CNN and the BBC.