The Real Problem With The iPhone “Sexting” App

Snapchat shares photos that self-destruct. It says it’s not about sexting, even though that’s how it’s used by some teens. But you definitely shouldn’t use it for sexting.

Graphic by Chris Ritter

Snapchat is built for teenagers.

The website features a bright and sunny shot of two young, pretty girls, with matching straightened, long blond hair and the kind of precisely thick black eyeliner only people under 20 can pull off, making energetically silly expressions and capturing their faces on an iPhone wrapped in hot-pink rubber. On the year-old app’s iTunes page, another pair of pretty white teenagers pose, first in summery shorts and tank tops and then, when you scroll all the way to the right, in bikinis. When the app is described as being rated for users over 12 years of age due to, in part, “mild sexual content or nudity,” this is the kind of picture you might assume they’re referring to.

But what makes Snapchat different from other photo-sharing services is precisely why the app seems suspect — unlike Instagram or Flickr, pictures shared through the app are time-sensitive. They self-destruct, like a Mission: Impossible-o-gram. Senders of Snapchat photos may choose how long they want their recipients to see these photos, up to 10 seconds, before they vanish forever. This feature — one designed, it seems, specifically for sending the kind of pictures users wouldn’t want recipients to hang onto permanently — has led some to question whether or not Snapchat is largely used for sexting among minors.

In response to these concerns, Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel previously stated, “The minute you tell someone that images on your server disappear, everyone jumps to sexting.” He said it laughingly, the interview notes, but one could hardly be blamed for responding, “Well, yeah.” It makes sense, doesn’t it? The time limit is an implicit permission, of sorts: You “know” these pictures won’t stick around, so…just do whatever comes to mind.

But Spiegel doesn’t think it’s happening. At least not much. Displaying an intriguing level of unfamiliarity with our country’s politicians, movie stars, and teens, he said, “I just don’t know people who do that. It doesn’t seem that fun when you can have real sex.”

Representative Chris Lee immediately resigned after a shirtless photo (tied to a Craigslist dating ad response) surfaced last year. gawker.com

Though Snapchat is designed to make photo retention harder, it does not (and cannot) concern itself with making it impossible. When a user attempts to take a screenshot of another’s Snap, the photo’s sender is notified — but the screenshot still exists on the other user’s phone, where it can be shared with the rest of the world. There is also no way Snapchat can prevent a user from taking a picture of his or her phone with another phone or camera. And obviously it can’t prevent those copies from being sent to audiences for whom they were not originally intended.

In response to our request for further comment on the general issue, Spiegel told BuzzFeed that the Snapchat team is “trying to do a better job educating our users and their parents,” and that he hoped to have more materials available on the company website soon. When asked whether the prospect of nonconsensual photo sharing concerned him, Spiegel stated that the app is “not about ‘privacy,’ per se,” but pointed to the screen cap notifications, the requirement that users know their recipients usernames, and the fact that photos sent must be “live” rather than uploaded as examples of how it boosts security.

The app’s message, then, is a mixed one: We don’t guarantee security, and we can’t imagine you using this for anything unseemly. But here are some tools to make sexting easier. Not that we think you’re sexting. It’s the app equivalent of a head shop.

The app also presents a challenge for parents concerned by the prospect of their minor children sharing sexual or suggestive photos. One such parent (speaking anonymously to BuzzFeed) remarked, “The weird part is that it doesn’t have the usual danger that most parents warn their kids of — that if you send someone a picture of your body parts, it can get passed around and shown to anyone and everyone.” The thing is, using Snapchat does, technically speaking, run the risk of having pictures being passed around, even though its selling point is that it doesn’t. When asked whether Snapchat users like her child were mature enough to understand the consequences of nude photo sharing, she replied, “Absolutely not.”

While it is likely both pointless (since teenagers have always spent and will always spend a great deal of time and energy on sex) and patronizing (because teens who engage in consensual sexting are not without agency) to engage in reflexive hand-wringing over the state of our youth, Snapchat use adds yet another wrench to recent discussions about social media expressions made public. Snapchat photos may not be (initially) public, but the steps taken to make them so are minimal; if they do become public, whose fault is that?

Well, whoever shared a private picture without the sender’s consent, of course. But unlike Twitter shaming, in which the person who did something “wrong” is identified by his or her handle (and even then, not always correctly), the publicity of assumed-private photos rarely (if ever) results in the shaming of the photo’s publisher. Teaching young people to understand the consequences of public speech is its own task, but teaching them (or adults, or anyone) how to identify whom they can and cannot trust is quite another.

It’s impossible to know the extent to which Snapchat is used for sexting (especially compared with any other app or, you know, regular text messaging), but it is happening. In its content ratings, the app’s official iTunes page acknowledges as much. History has shown us that people will transmit pictures of breasts and penises using almost any form of media, if only given the time and the right kind of lighting. While Snapchat can’t fairly be held responsible for the general weirdness of human sexuality, it could stand to do a better job warning its young users that its predominant selling point — the time limit — does little to keep pictures in the moment, or to protect their privacy.

Anecdotally, when we asked the anonymous parent if she knows whether her child, or her friend’s child, used Snapchat in a sexually explicit or otherwise suggestive manner, she says they’ve both told her, “‘Other people’ use it for [sexting], but that they don’t. They have seen people do it and seen those kinds of pictures, but they only make silly faces.” Which is a very teenager-like thing to say to your mom about something like this.

Ultimately, sexters will sext, but it may be worth a reminder (or several thousand, every few days or so): Nude pictures can always find their way onto the Internet. No app — not Instagram, not Snapchat, nor any photo app yet to be created — can make nonconsensual photo sharing totally impossible. There’s no guarantee that people will do the right thing with photos they receive, even if they have only 10 seconds to decide.

Check out more articles on BuzzFeed.com!

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