Sexting – there's an app for that. But beware: it still has consequences
Just when it seemed the epidemic of teenage "sexting" couldn't get any worse, fears have been expressed about a new technology that allows adolescents to permanently erase explicit photographs seconds after sending them.
Every day, millions of teens use the mobile-phone application Snapchat to share often revealing shots, which vanish into the cyber-ether after a heartbeat, their parents none the wiser.
Some in the tech community have labelled it the "Tiger Woods" app, in reference to the sexually charged texts he is said to have received and which eventually returned to haunt him.
Such is the popularity of Snapchat – and its potential for abuse – that parenting groups have taken the unprecedented step of warning of its dangers. Last week, the National Parents Council cautioned that technology encouraging "sexting" could fuel cyberbullying.
"The concern is that something of a pornographic nature or something derogatory . . . could be sent to a child and opened up," said the organisation's Jackie O'Callaghan. "It then disappears off the screen and there is no evidence. It deletes itself within seconds and there's no way of tracing it."
These worries are shared by anti-bullying advocates, who say teens might be lulled into a false security if they believe the images they are sending are timed to self-destruct.
The catch is that while Snapchat implicitly promises consequence-free sexting, it is easy to save a picture and negate the entire point of the service.
All you need to do is photograph the image with your smartphone's "screenshot" facility and, presto, you have a permanent copy of something that was supposed to be gone forever. Already, we have seen a site dedicated to "deleted" Snapchat images called Snapchat Sluts (the creator has removed offensive shots for fear of falling foul of laws against explicit depiction of underage girls).
"When a user attempts to take a screenshot of another's Snap, the photo's sender is notified," Kate Heaney of the site Buzzfeed has pointed out. "But the screenshot still exists on the other user's phone, where it can be shared with the rest of the world."
One flashpoint is where sexting takes place between an underage couple, who then break up, says Ian Power of youth health organisation SpunOut.
"We've heard of anecdotal cases in schools in which images have been shared between two young people and after a trigger event, such as a relationship break-up, images have been posted on anonymous or personal profiles for others to see.
"It is not always clear to young people that there are dangers in sharing images or videos while in a relationship. Their thoughts are not necessarily on the consequences after the relationship or friendship ends. The only way to safeguard against being a victim of sexting cyberbullying is by not sending images or videos of yourself to others.
"The emergence of apps like Snapchat . . . lend themselves to making sexting easier for young people, so it's important they know not to share compromising images.
"The most high-profile cyberbullying case where sexting was involved was that of Canadian teen Amanda Todd, who took her own life after being blackmailed into sharing naked photos of herself on a webcam, videos of which were later posted online."
Parenting expert Martina Newe adds: "We only have to look at recent tragic cases which began with girls sending a semi-clothed photo of themselves to a boy and led to a trail of bullying and harassment."
Teens sending sexts could also fall foul of child pornography laws, points out anti-bullying activist Justin Morahan. Under current regulations, a 16-year-old who receives an explicit sext from his 15-year-old girlfriend is, for instance, technically guilty of viewing child pornography. There is no "Romeo and Juliet" exemption taking into the account the age of the parties concerned.
To be clear, the creators of Snapchat in no way advocate sexting. Its inventor, Evan Spiegel, said 80pc of the 30 million Snapchat images sent each day are done so during daylight, which, by his reckoning, means they are unlikely to have a sexual element. There is no mention of sexting on the company website, although it features a suggestive image of two bikini-clad women larking in a pool.
"[Snapchat] is really different and it's really fun," said Spiegel, a student at Stanford University in California. "It breaks this old model based on performance for our friends in exchange for likes or retweets. It turns that around and it says, 'Hey, it's more interesting and fun when you can express yourself and be silly.'"
A curious twist in the story came last month as social-networking giant Facebook unveiled a Snapchat-type service called Poke, which also allows you to send pictures timed to self-erase.
This has caused a great deal of head-scratching in Silicon Valley. At a time when Google is working on self-driving cars and 3D glasses, why is Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg trying to get into the market?
"Putting aside the abhorrent nature of children sexting for a moment, Poke brings up questions about Facebook's product direction," tech entrepreneur Jason Calcanis blogged recently. "What do Facebook's elite developers think when Zuckerberg comes into the room and says, 'Let's all bust our asses for two weeks to copy a sexting app?'"