Why this pediatrician is worried about Snapchat

We’ve all been hearing about the cool app Snapchat, which allows people to send pictures and videos that only last a few seconds before disappearing. Because of the disappearing thing, the worry that I keep reading about is that teens will use it for sexting, figuring that it’s no problem if they take sexy pictures or videos, because they won’t last.

Now I worry about sexting as much as anybody else (although a 2011 study suggests that not that many teenagers actually do it). Sexting can glamorize and normalize sex in a way that might cause some teenagers to start having sex earlier, or in unhealthy ways. And legally, sexting can possibly be considered sexual harassment–or worse, distributing pornography.

But that’s not my biggest worry about Snapchat.

Here’s the thing: the pictures and videos don’t necessarily disappear. The way the app is set up, someone can take a screen shot. While theoretically the sender should be notified if a screen shot gets taken, it only took me a couple of minutes on Google to find hacks that would allow me to take screen shots or save video without the sender knowing.

I worry about Snapchat because it creates the illusion that something can disappear from social media–and that is really dangerous. The biggest two lessons that youth need to learn–actually, that everybody needs to learn–about social media are: 1. Nothing is private and 2. Anything you do on social media can last forever.

We keep hearing about people losing their chances at jobs or school admission because their prospective employers or admissions officers go online and check them out. They look at publicly available stuff–tweets, Facebook posts, etc–and they don’t like what they find. We are all doing it, actually: making judgments about people based on what they post.

The other day, my 15-year-old daughter got mad that I looked at her blog. She saw it as an invasion of her privacy. Um … sweetie? The entire world can look at it. But I’m asking you not to, she said. It doesn’t work that way, hon. You don’t pick who looks at what you put online.

We just don’t think about this stuff as we are posting and tweeting and sending photos and texts. A couple of days ago my 20-year-old son took a screen shot of a text conversation we’d had and posted it on Facebook. I didn’t really mind, but it was definitely one of those note-to-self moments. Anything we email or post or text or send can go anywhere. Literally.

This is a really important, and yet really hard, lesson to learn. And apps like Snapchat make it harder by making it seem like it’s possible that social media could actually be ephemeral or private.

I love social media, and think that it has tremendous potential to help us in so many ways. But it isn’t ephemeral or private. At all. The sooner everyone learns and lives that, the better.

Claire McCarthy is a primary care physician and the medical director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Martha Eliot Health Center.  She blogs at Thriving, the Boston Children’s Hospital blog, Vector, the Boston Children’s Hospital science and clinical innovation blog, and MD Mama at Boston.com, where this article originally appeared.

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  • Tim873

    We must ban:


    –video games

    –bouncy castles


    –soft drink



    • Andrew Levin

      That’s weird–I don’t remember Dr. McCarthy saying anything about banning Snapshot or anything else. I do recall her saying “I love social media” in the context of an even-tempered exposition of concern, however. Perhaps we can avoid knee-jerk hysteria in the future, Guest.

    • goonerdoc

      Wow. Fantastic reply, Guest. She said nothing about banning Snapchat, but yet you took it and went with it! What a thought out response! You must teach us all how to do this in the future!

  • Jennifer Brenton

    We are pretty good at teaching the “stranger danger” of face-to-face encounters, however we have not caught up with understanding and appropriately teaching “stranger danger” online. In my opinion, teaching online “stranger danger” should start well before the children are in school, the same time we discuss face-to-face “stranger danger” (or the minute our children start using our iPads or smartphones). The Snapchat issue of anyone being able to copy and pass on any and all of that communication is another form of “stranger danger” that even those who should know better (I.e. college students and older) are ignoring. Educating parents and giving reassurance that preschool is an okay time to start teaching children about online communication rules will go a long way toward the safety of our children.

    Children are very intuitive about the mechanics of online communication; our lack of knowledge as parents in my humble opinion is the equivalent of letting our children take a car into traffic with no driver’s training, where operating the car is not so difficult, but ignorance of the traffic laws could get them seriously injured or worse. It used to be we could look at our children doing their homework and accept that at some point, we could not help them anymore. If we as parents adopt this same thinking regarding our children online, we open both our children and possibly our families up to both predators and bad habits that may haunt us for years; missteps are difficult to undo personally and professionally, as you so eloquently point out. In our family, my daughter and I share and teach one another the things we learn online, and it keeps the dialogue open. Being a family is a team sport where social media and online communication is concerned.

    As health care practitioners, finding a way to support already busy and sometimes overwhelmed parents about educating their own children as early as possible about online strangers may challenge our own level of online social media knowledge, skill, or even opinion. Regardless, it is important to talk about, and I thank you for your blog.

    My personal take away? Never parent through text, email, social media, or blog unless I wish to have my communication broadcast! Great writing and many thanks to Dr. Claire McCarthy.


  • Anthony D

    I never understood why people like to exploit themselves on social media or on cyberspace. Since we are all living in dangerous times and how we have so many sickos that lurk on the internet this days.

    Its best just to limit yourself on how you handle things online. This also is in regards to doctors. Because finding information on them is just too easy lately! Patients can look up their NPI numbers and can find where they practice medicine and find out where they live as well if they didn’t secure their documents correctly!

  • DavidBehar

    A statute should be enacted to prevent the use of irrelevant social media actions and criminal convictions in any decision, to lease an apartment, hire an employee. It is OK to exclude a sex offender from a nursing job, or another job involving the body. It is not OK to exclude one from a construction job.

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