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

January 26, 2018

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.