Cyberbullying, Sexting, and Snapchat: It’s Time To Take This App Seriously

It’s time for Snapchat to take sexting, cyberbullying, and sexual exploitation on its app seriously.

Within the last decade, cyberbullying has emerged as a pernicious new form of bullying that breaks the spirits of our nation’s children. It has been deemed a public health issue[1] and is a matter of serious concern to our organization.

We are especially concerned by evidence which shows that some cyberbullying activity involves sexual harassment and coercion. It is our view that much of the activity referred to under the guise of “sexting” actually represents cyber-based sexual abuse. For instance, offline sexual coercion has been “significantly associated with sending and being asked for a naked image, as well as receiving a naked image without giving permission.”[2] Researchers have also documented “aggravated” forms of “sexting” that may involve adults soliciting sexual images from minors, as well as criminal or abusive behavior by minors such as extortion, or the creation and sending of images without the knowledge of the minors pictured.[3]

At least one such teen suicide, that of Tovanna Holtan, is attributable to a video uploaded to Snapchat. Ms. Holtan was recorded while bathing, and the video was subsequently uploaded by a friend to Snapchat where viewers began taking screenshots and posting the images on other social media platforms. Unable to withstand the harassment that followed, Ms. Holtan—at age 15—took her own life.[4] Tragedies such as these underscore the seriousness of bullying in general, and cyber-based sexual abuse in particular.

Even aside from such extreme cases, sexting generally has been linked to risky behaviors, as well as sexual abuse and violence. Italian researchers report that of the 536 participants aged 13 to 18 (who were part of a larger study of sexting behaviors), 79.5% reported having sexted at least once, 53.5% reported that they had received sexts at least once, 76.9% reported that they had sent sexts at least once, and 8.2% publicly posted a sext as least once.[5]

This is terribly disconcerting, as in some instances such sexting could constitute self-produced child pornography. Importantly, extending previous similar findings, the researchers found that of the total 1334 person sample studied (aged 13 to 30):

  • 13% sexted during substance use at least once;
  • 30% had been forced to sext by a partner at least once;
  • 10% had been forced to sext by friends at least once;
  • 95% had sent sexts to strangers;
  • 59% had sent sexts about someone else [sometimes referred to as “secondary sexting”] without her/his consent at least once.[6]

Further, their results confirmed a relationship between sexting and dating violence: “Specifically, moderate and high users of sexting are more likely to be perpetrators of dating violence, including online, than low users of sexing.”[7] Sexting has also been linked to smoking, substance use, alcohol abuse, and binge drinking.[8]

Such findings should deeply concern Snap, Inc. With more than 200 million active users worldwide, rates like those reported above have huge implications, especially so when nearly a quarter of its users have not graduated from high school.[9]

Snapchat’s reputation is indelibly marred by its association with sexting.

Because of the ability of Snapchat photos to expire within 10 seconds, it has become the major sexting vehicle. As one writer put it, “For millennials, Snapchat is almost entirely synonymous with sexting.”[10]

These issues—cyberbullying, cyber-based sexual abuse, and sexting—are impacting an entire generation of American youth, and much more needs to be done to prevent their deepening harms.

Thus, it is inexcusable that in its Community Guidelines, Snapchat’s attempt to address serious issues such as those outlined above includes the cavalier guidance to, “Keep it legal. Don’t use Snapchat for any illegal shenanigans.”[11] In fact, in its Terms of Service, Snapchat provides more robust language about copyright infringement that it does the dangers of exchanging sexts and pornography via its app.

Moreover, the notion that Snapchat wishes to distance itself from its sexting roots appears disingenuous when one considers that with the “Memories” feature users can store “private” snaps via a tool called “My Eyes Only,” which hides “sensitive” snaps with a pin-code lock.[12] The video Snapchat released when it launched Memories certainly implies that hiding sexts is why this feature was developed.

For these reasons and more, Snapchat must take significant, effective steps to provide prominent in-app reporting systems for users to report other users that send or promote sexually exploitive content, and then enforce this policy by promptly removing accounts that engage in these actions.

Learn more about links between Snapchat and sexual exploitation here.

Take action and contact Snapchat executives by filling out the form below:

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