CLEVELAND - Unlike most social media that create a permanent history for users, Snapchat is a moment in time, captured in a picture that is destined to disappear in 10 seconds or less. The sender decides how long the image can be viewed by the recipient. Its appeal is striking: Snapchat, an app created by a group of Stanford students, now sees and deletes 150 million photo uploads a day.
The nature of Snapchat, with its ghost icon representing the "now you see it, now you don't" feature is of some concern for parents and Internet crime investigators, who feel users may see the app as a way to get around sexting laws. Last month, Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel said he doesn't think that's how the service is typically used.
But for Dave Fretari, an investigator for Cuyahoga County Internet Crimes Against Children task force, it presents a double-edged sword. For predators, the app deletes the evidence. For teens, the sense that they can snap pictures of of themselves that will disappear gives a false sense of security. Recipients with iOS or Android operating systems can take a screen shot of the image before it disappears and then post it anywhere. While Snapchat tries to let users know if that happens, by that time, it is - of course - too late.
Fretari said, "We see everything. The internet has created what predators, even teenagers believe is an anonymous environment and that really couldn't be further from the truth."
Fretari admitted that it's a challenge for Internet crime investigators to keep up with constantly evolving apps.
"I think law enforcement is always a little behind the curve. Just when we understand Facebook, for example, the kids or the suspects will move to something else."
Unfortunately, because of apps like Snapchat, Fretari said "more and more kids are becoming suspects instead of just victims. I think they need to see the consequences that could be a result of their actions on the Internet."
To that end, Fretari and others in the judicial system take a program into local schools to educate young teens about the responsibilities and dangers posed by the Internet and its temptations. Sexting -- sending nude or semi-nude photos -- is a felony, which can involve time in juvenile detention, a fine, and being labeled a sexual predator. It's an eye-opener for many students, like one freshman at Westlake High School who, after seeing the program, said "I didn't know (sexting) was illegal and I'll bet a lot of people didn't."
The big take away for parents is the need to overcome "tech-phobia" and know which apps your kids are using on their devices. Fretari also suggests parents set a "tech curfew" for younger teens, and collect their devices to charge up in your room at night.