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And now for the self-destructing text…maybe

1/16/2013 9:00:00 AM

Over the last few weeks there has been a lot of chatter about Snapchat, a very cool smartphone app that allows you to ‘chat’ with friends via photos and now video. The idea is that you capture a ‘selfie’ or a short video clip using your phone’s front-facing camera, and then add a text caption or even a little artwork before sending it text-style to all your BFFs.

The popularity of the service was confirmed late last year when it was revealed that Snapchat had met the two accepted standards for success in today’s app-crazed world: regular server outages caused by too much traffic and a potential acquisition by Facebook. (Undeterred by the Snapchat founders’ refusal to sell, Facebook went ahead and launched its own Snapchat clone called Poke.)

As well as offering the ability to add photos and videos to texts – a huge hit among its target demographic of tweens and teens – Snapchat has one other advantage: the messages self-delete after they have been viewed. That’s right, the sender can select a time – anything from 1 to 10 seconds – after which the image, along with any added text or artwork, will self-destruct.

Of course, it didn’t take ‘concerned parents’ too long to point out that such a service was perfect for ‘sexting’ – the practice of sending nude or sexually suggestive images via smartphones and other mobile devices. What better excuse for inappropriate behavior among oversexed teens, the argument goes, than a photo app that immediately destroys the evidence?

Unfortunately, kids who are determined to indulge in risky behavior hardly need Snapchat to achieve their goals. Ever since we started putting powerful digital cameras in immature hands, we have run the risk of our kids getting themselves into trouble. The safeguards haven’t changed: talk to your kids so they understand the risks, and monitor their behavior so you can intervene before that risk becomes a serious problem.

And when you talk to your kids about Snapchat, Poke and similar messaging apps, you might want to point out that there is really no such thing as a self-deleting text. Snapchat recognizes just one of the ways in which its texts can live on by alerting the sender if the recipient takes a screenshot.

“What?” I hear you ask. “What’s the point of a self-deleting texting service if the person receiving the text can take a screenshot?” Exactly. Snapchat has no way to disable the recipient’s ability to take that screenshot, so all it can do is warn the sender when it happens. Add to that the ability of the recipient to use another smartphone or camera to capture a screenshot and that self-deleting feature doesn’t look quite so clever after all.

Tech news site Digital Trends recently added to the unease about apps like Snapchat and Poke by taking a hard look at the Terms of Service of the two companies behind the apps. Turns out that even if messages are no longer available on a recipient’s phone, they can stay on company servers for 90 days or longer. Again, so much for self-delete.

Snapchat is a brilliant app that provides a novel and fun way for people to liven up those dreary texts. But let’s not kid ourselves – or our kids – that we’ve suddenly found a way to erase our digital footprints.

Comment by Jane m, posted 1/8/2013, 9:54 AM:

I don't think this app is for my family. Too risky.
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