Because my vision for my work is to help integrate emerging technologies with clinical social work and psychotherapy, I don’t have the luxury of relying on moral panic for my information when a new social media arrives. Actually, I’m a bit late to the game with Snapchat, which has been around since September 2011. But I take comfort that I am in the fastest growing user demographic for it, namely people in their 40s.
I am fortunate to have a cohort of clinicians, educators and early adopters in my personal learning network. Folks such as Nancy Smyth and Jonathan Singer, who are also committed to approaching technology with an NCPTI (No Contempt Prior To Investigation) attitude. So this week I invited them to partake in a foray into Snapchat with a few other friends and clinicians.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Snapchat (and for those of you who say, “isn’t that about teen sexting?” you aren’t familiar with Snapchat,) Snapchat is a photo messaging application that allows you to take photos and share them with members of your Snapchat social network. The photos are temporary; once a person views them for 1-10 seconds they disappear forever. There is an option to keep them on a feed called your “Story” for 24 hours, but after that they too are gone forever. Viewing them on your smartphone requires keeping your thumb touching a spot on the screen, and when you lift it the photo is gone, forever if the seconds run out before you touch again.
In reality the photos may be stored on the servers for up to a month if they are not viewed, but the initial viewing starts a countdown to deletion and impermanence. Technically there are possible workarounds, such as taking a screenshot on your iPhone, which I managed to do at least once successfully with only 5 secs and some thumb dexterity.
Snapchat has become synonymous with teen sexting in the popular media, there is not a lot of research specifically on it. My preliminary look showed that one study mentioning photo images, which tended to conflate teen sexting with grooming for pedophilia. Pew Information that predates Snapchat by 2 years shows that a minority of teens 12-17 were sending (4%) or receiving (15%) “sexual” photos, and that 1:3 ratio itself is worthy of wondering about. The number goes up at 17 with 8% sending and 30% receiving them. That said, another study by Mitchell et al (2012) found a lower number of students reported receiving sexual images at 2.5% Even more significant was how that percentage dropped to 1% when the definition of images was reduced to sexually explicit as defined by showing naked body parts. The 1:3 receive/send ratio remained the same, but once the research drilled down to specifics about the images, a clear minority of teens emerged.
Every teenager is important, but 1-4% of a population is not an epidemic. In terms of how many kids may be using snapchat, it is hard to tell. Anecdotally the media tells stories of kids who believe “90% of my class uses it,” and yet the data I’ve seen on comparable products such as Twitter or Instagram is much lower than that, with 26% of youth in 2012 using Twitter and 11% using Instagram, per Pew.
Back to Snapchat. So far the my impressions have been these:
1. Snapchat may actually encourage privacy relative to other platforms. The fact that adolescents are using Snapchat, with its fleeting images and transient nature may indicate their growing interest in digital privacy. Future surveys need to specifically ask the question “Do you take screenshots when you get a Snap so you can keep it?” to see if teens are doing just that. An equally important question is “Do you know you can do that?” Here’s why:
2. Teens may mistakenly think that the images are more permanent than they actually are. We often assume youth are more sophisticated in technology use than adults, but even if that is true, it means that we have limited ability to ask them the specific questions to understand their understanding of it. If we discover that a majority of children understand they can work around the temporary nature of Snapchat, yet don’t do that, does that indicate a heightened interest in personal privacy and respect for the privacy of others? Does it indicate a lack of premeditation when viewing a picture? Does it indicate something else?
3. Snapchat makes adults anxious. I base this on the number of folks I chatted with trying to enroll in my experiment who joked about whether we would engage in sexting or not. Answer: No, we won’t.
4. Snapchat has potential to change the way we converse. As I exchanged photos I realized that the real fun was in snapping the photo to “reply” to the friend’s photo. If I just snapped pictures and sent them the conversation tended to peter out. Captions allowed me to frame the picture with humor and engage. Or you can refrain from captioning and see how strong the image is in its ability to convey meaning. My favorite to date was when Nancy Smyth sent me a Snap of her latest Starbucks Refresher, and I replied with mine as if to say “This is all your fault.” I’ll be curious to see if that is how she interpreted to image.
5. Snapchat seems to encourage whimsy and humor amongst my cohort. Perhaps it is because we are not in the throes of adolescence, but the images we have sent are more latency age from a psychodynamic point of view. They have included:
- A leaf
- A book by Julian Barnes
- A Do Not Enter Sign (in response to the book by Julian Barnes)
- Several beverages
- A glowing ghost
- Someone sporting a V for Vendetta masque
- A screenshot of Call of Duty: Ghosts
- One child, presumably an offspring.
- 2 Cat pictures with veterinary injuries circled and labeled
What has been emerging is a playful portrait of everyday lives, curated surely, but informative and engaging nonetheless. Are these trivial images? Maybe, but I prefer to think that human engagement that is playful is meaningful regardless of how trivial it may seem, and I’d encourage skeptics to try Snapchat out a bit rather than adhere to the CPTI model.
6. Snapchat could have potential for social work. I’m thinking about how it could be used to contract for surveillance with runaways and their caregivers. I’m thinking of how it could raise awareness on homelessness if we had people create “Stories” to be viewed temporarily what homelessness looks like. I’m thinking how teen groups could use it to send each other encouragement between groups in the form of pictures of resilience, warmth or whimsy. Remember, the title of today’s post is “First Thoughts” not “Best Practices.” Now is the time for innovation and reflection, and I’m sure there are a number of ways we could utilize this platform to supplement the work we do with children if a few of us mental health types think for a few minutes beyond the “It’s about sexting!” line of thought.
Technology amplifies thoughts and feelings, and so it will be unsurprising to me if it amplifies sexual expression and flirtation in adolescents. Our real problem with adolescents has always been that they have a sexuality to begin with, and a life that is diverging from the adults in their world. Snapchat isn’t really the problem here. Our larger problems are as always the proprietary sense of control we exert on adolescents, our anxiety about their sexuality, and our tendency to want to avoid those two emotional conflicts by finding a way to control the adolescents who trigger us.
But it may just be the case that our youth are starting to request and require more privacy from their technology, and if so that is a great thing. The main danger I see is that they have been raised by a generation that often yearns to find a privacy setting to “park” their children on, rather than educate them about critical thinking and digital citizenship. If teens don’t know the whole story about the settings on Snapchat and other platforms that’s a problem. If they don’t learn how to be good digital citizens that’s a problem. But if they don’t know because all we ever taught them was how to “park” their privacy settings or turn the App off, then we have failed them. And that’s our problem.
By the way, if you are a parent and want to understand more about Snapchat and your child’s safe use of it, Snapchat actually has a Guide for Parents
Mike Langlois, LICSW
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