Teens Scramble For New Opportunity To Debase Themselves

A most disconcerting scene from a high school in Kansas, where teens are in the grips of a sickness. A teacher’s perspective:

I am pretty lenient about phone use in my class because we use phones for various things. There is always the kid that sneaks in a text or two, but as long as it isn’t a distraction, I don’t worry too much.

Today was the first day in a long time I actually took phones away. I have no idea what all was included in the update, but you would have thought it was crack. They seriously could not keep away from it. I even had one girl crawl under the table with her phone.

This “update” was a change to Snapchat, the teen messaging app du jour, which adds face-to-face video calling and basic texting. All kinds of apps do this now, there are a hundred ways to text, and we’ve been Skyping for ten years. So what IS it, really, with this particular download? It’s mostly just that all the teens are already there, configured into their little cliques and constellations. But there’s something else going on: The new Snapchat has some unusual ideas about personal space.

Snapchat’s basic privacy settings are clear and helpful: You can turn off unsolicited messages in the settings. Even then, messages have to be tapped to be seen, problem senders can be blocked, etc. It’s not a bad system! You can mostly avoid getting unwanted photos and videos in the first place, and you have recourse if your safeguards fail.

In contrast, the new system plays loose with permission and consent. Entering in a chat with someone takes you to a separate screen that feels like texting or private messaging. But by starting that text conversation, you’re also opening your phone to live video without warning. I started a chat with a friend, forgot about it, and looked back down at my phone a few seconds later to see his face, staring at me silently through the phone, live. He pressed a button and appeared on my phone. I never answered that call! There’s was no “so and so wants to video chat with you” or “you’re about to see whatever this other person’s camera is pointed at” warning. It’s disconcerting, and feels a little like a trick—texting and live video are at different ends of the intimacy spectrum, and now you consent to them both with the same subtle action. This is what makes it exhilarating, I suppose: It makes Snapchat feel a little more dangerous, or volatile, or sexty, in the way that parents have assumed it was all along. Things can escalate INSTANTLY.

This is what the startup world is bringing us: Phone calls that answer themselves, and conversations that never end. God help the teens.