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Emily Welker, Published May 18 2013

Fleeting photo app a cause for concern?

Fargo - A smartphone app for sending photos that disappear within seconds is causing concern for area police who work in schools.

“It’s just a nightmare – there’s always something new,” said Discovery Middle School Resource Officer Kim Claus.

The app, called Snapchat, has a reputation for being a common vehicle for sexting – trading sexual, self-taken photos – because the quick disappearance of the photos gives users the impression they’ll be less likely to be seen by others or spread online.

Daria Odegaard knows that is not always the case. Her colleague was standing in line behind a bunch of college guys at Spicy Pie downtown, when one of them got a Snapchat message. The picture in it was a compromising self-portrait of a young woman he knew.

Thanks to a quick pass-around among the guys, and a screen grab, the pornographic picture was still being shown around, and it and the young woman’s presumed sexual availability was loudly discussed well after the original photo disappeared, Odegaard said.

“We talk about the possibility all the time, but we had never seen it in action,” said Odegaard, an education coordinator for the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center of Fargo-Moorhead.

She added that it’s likely the young woman had meant the Snapchat photo to be shared only privately, not passed around like a Playboy magazine at summer camp.

“My advice to kids is always to remember nothing is private, and everything is forever on social media,” Odegaard said.

Despite the risks, the app appears to be popular. The company that makes the app stated in December that more than 50 million photos are shared with the app every day.

Officer Todd Pearson, the school resource officer for the Sheyenne 9th Grade Center in West Fargo, said he guessed about 70 percent of the students there use Snapchat.

A photo sent via Snapchat disappears after a set number of seconds – one to 10 – chosen by the sender. It also notifies the sender if the recipient takes a screen grab. But that is no protection once the photo has left the sender’s phone, and it’s also easy to photograph the soon-to-disappear portrait.

Claus, who recently wrote about the issue for Fargo Public Schools on its blog at areavoices.com, said she had not heard of Snapchat until a parent came to her complaining that a student was using another social media app to send harassing messages to the parent’s child. Claus did some research on the latest apps and was taken aback, both by Snapchat, and messaging apps such as Kik.

Claus said Kik is popular with children because it allows them to chat without racking up text fees or data charges.

“Kik – even if you look at your kids’ phone records, it (the text message) disappears,” Claus said. “You need to be looking at the phone itself … checking their messages, making sure you have the security code if the phone is locked.”

That’s advice echoed by Odegaard, who agreed with Claus that parents can find help by installing monitoring apps on their phone that track activity on their kids’ phones.

Taking a child’s age and maturity into account is also key, Claus said.

“I’ve seen elementary school kids with smartphones – fully loaded,” said Claus. “I blame the parents. Why do they need Internet access 24/7?”

Odegaard said a high-tech approach may not be the answer for parents when it comes to intervening in their kids’ social media lives.

Smartphone and social media technology move so fast that parents, who tend to be slower adopters than their children, should start by getting out in front of the communications curve the old-fashioned way – by talking with their kids.

Make it a part of the cell-phone culture at home that kids hand over the phone to Mom and Dad every so often, she said. Make it the norm that phone codes are shared with parents, and that kids get the message that nothing on social media is ever 100 percent destroyed.

“Even sharing some of these inappropriate photos in person can lead to rumors, which lead to Facebook posts and Twitter comments,” that can end up with people bullying the person in the photo, Odegaard said.

“Tell them, ‘It’s not that I don’t trust you,’ ” said Odegaard. “‘It’s that I don’t trust other people.’ ”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541