Charlene takes a picture of her dog with her smartphone and morphs his face onto hers to make a hybrid creature. She sends it to dozens of her friends and acquaintances.
Over the next 23-hour period, 70 of Charlene’s friends view it. Many reply with pictures of their own, some clutching dogs or cats, some with hybrid faces themselves.
Some have accompanying text: “Aww weird!” or “That’s an improvement!”
It sounds like typical teenage high jinks, and it’s all done via Snapchat, the ephemeral messaging app where posts are automatically deleted after a few seconds, or 24 hours if they’re posted to the user’s “My story” page.
But it’s not only funny photos of pets that young people are sending to each other. Snapchat also enables them to explore their sexuality in a new way, posting provocative or nude photos to peers they feel a connection with.
Some have raised concerns about whether this is healthy behaviour for young people, as well as the dangers of their private photos being leaked or used as revenge porn. There are also concerns about the legality of sending nude images if the person involved is underage.
But, in the vast majority of cases, apps like Snapchat are just a vehicle for youth creativity and socialisation, and that’s something we should celebrate.
“Selfies”, sent through Snapchat, invite peer attention. Self-profiling of this sort is a high priority, particularly when relationships are forged through social media.
Young people are also becoming experts in multimedia production, as they curate the photographs and videos that narrate their lives.
And they are adept at using the range of filters provided by Snapchat that enable them to manipulate their media. These can be like carnival mirrors that distort faces, make eyes droopy, add exaggerated or cartoon lips, among other effects.
Users can even swap faces with friends (or pets), or merge theirs with images storied on their phone, or blend them on the spot in a group selfie.
Emojis represent another new form of digital expression. They are small cartoon images applied to symbolise mood or make jokes. These can be blown up in proportion with the image and moved around to enhance the original, so a happy or sad face can be used to replace a real face.
The images on a user’s My story page reveals emotional tales like “I wish you hadn’t left me”, or “in need of a girlfriend”, to their networked community of Snapchat friends.
This network also extends to the rich and famous. Like their young audience, celebrities use Snapchat to broadcast the detail of their lives and garner the public’s attention. They solicit approval, enabling audiences to get to know the “real” (albeit highly curated) them.
What are the risks and dangers?
In many ways, Snapchat facilitates the best and worst of youth culture. Although young people have always experimented with their sexuality, youthful sexual exploration is now taking place in visual cyber contexts.
With the development of applications that capture the image without the owner’s knowledge, there is potential for a user to lose control of their explicit images, and have them go viral. And it is the most vulnerable who are at risk, such as those who seek approval of peers or reciprocation of love.
If you are a parent and you’re worried about how your children are using Snapchat, then the first step is to have frank and honest discussions about media use and the role of Snapchat.
Although the effects of cyberbullying can be far reaching and require appropriate action, it is questionable whether young people should be prosecuted for consensual sexual experimentation that can be seen as part and parcel of growing up.
Although radicalisation, cyberbullying and sexting are high-profile issues, the overwhelming majority of images produced by young people are innocently innovative.
The rich culture of media production, such as via Snapchat, supports children’s creativity. We advocate parents and educators open further spaces for discussions on the appropriate use of social media so that we support digital citizens of the future.