I was 16 when I first joined Snapchat, a year after the app’s initial release in 2011, although at the time I had no understanding of the multimedia messaging platform. As it circulated throughout my school, and took over as the most popular form of communication, I had to ask my friend exactly what it was.
She explained that it was an app where you could send messages, images and videos, which then disappeared. "Basically it means you can send nudes without people saving them," she laughed.
And that, it seemed, was exactly how Snapchat was used by many teenagers, despite its community guidelines that state users should never post, save or send nude or sexual content involving anyone under the age of 18 (and never ask for it from a minor). But consensual sexting is, in hindsight, the least disturbing thing that Snapchat has helped facilitate.
As a teenager I left my profile settings open - meaning that anyone could contact me. It was the done thing, but what followed were a number of indecent photos from male strangers and requests to reciprocate, a distressing experience for any young woman.
One, who appeared to be a similar age to me, would regularly message simply saying ‘tits?’ It was embarrassing and uncomfortable, but seemed to be accepted as something that just came with the territory.
Now I look back on it with disgust and concern for any girls who potentially did respond to these vulgar messages.
But that was then. As Snapchat has developed - and in the wake of the #MeToo era - I was curious to find out whether users today were still at risk of sexual harassment.
So, a month ago, in a bid to see if this creepy environment still existed on the platform, I put my settings back to open (Snapchat's default is to lock them down). It meant that anyone would be able to message me - although I deliberately didn’t respond to any of the messages I received. Would anyone even notice that my profile was open? Why would they?
It took only a few hours before I was being sent videos of men masturbating.
‘Hey, Where are you from?’ came the first message. As soon as I read it, which the sender can see, he sent me a sexually explicit image. Once this had been opened, he then followed up with a video, followed by a message saying ‘Do u like?’, and then ‘Send me a snap’.
It took less than a day, simply with one unclick of a privacy button, for strangers to ask me to send nude pictures of myself, and to receive numerous 'dick pics'.
These were messages I hadn’t elicited, or responded to, from men who knew nothing about me - including my age. I am 23, but those Snapchat users who added me only had my screen name to go on - they had no clue whether I was a minor or not.
Snapchat claim that the process of adding new friends is difficult for strangers, as its users don’t have public profiles, so you need someone's exact username to find them.
But this has shown me just how easy it really is - as part of my experiment, I accepted 17 requests from people randomly guessing my username. Ten of those men began messaging me, with some of them sending numerous videos. I received over 100 of these disturbing messages within a month.
Having a common female name means that my username is relatively predictable - but that is presumably the same for many young girls using the platform, too. I was shocked by the prevalence of this behaviour and concerned for just how easily this could happen to any teenage girl on Snapchat.
When a contact request is accepted, a user’s information remains hidden, meaning the only details two users can see about each other are their usernames and 'Bitmojis' (a personalised cartoon avatar). With such little information to go on, it suggests these men were simply trying their luck.
Snapchat encourage users to report any content that breaches their guidelines and say they will either remove it or terminate the account behind the offence. However, they do not have any measures in place to stop this from happening in the first place, arguing that they have a duty to respect the privacy of users’ communications.
While this is true, Snapchat is so much more than a messaging app, it’s a social media platform that is being misused by predatory men.
That first man to send sexual images, continued to bombard me with photos and videos despite my lack of response. He also sent me a selfie of his face - allowing me to determine that he was probably in his late twenties, or early thirties - just like all the men who messaged me. He also sent a message which included his location, showing me that he lives in Los Angeles.
This is another concerning element about the app’s privacy settings. One of Snapchat’s features is the ‘Snap Map’, where all of a user’s friend’s locations are displayed on a world map. I kept mine on ‘ghost mode’, so that no one could see where I was, however, many teens have theirs open, meaning these online creeps could work out exactly where they live (the Snapchat default is to have it off). This included some of the people who added me, meaning that I was able to see, to the exact road, where they were in the world.
Another man began explicitly messaging this week. Having tried ‘Hey xxx’ on multiple occasions, he decided to take it further by sending me a selfie in his underwear, which then progressed to nude images and videos, repeatedly over an entire afternoon and evening. He asked me to respond saying things like ‘Talk to me’ and ‘I’m bored’.
He then went on to video call me. As soon as my phone lit up with the incoming call I felt sick. I didn’t want to think about his intentions had I picked up.
The increasing speed in notifications and the bombardment of images left me feeling incredibly uncomfortable and anxious. I was constantly on edge, expecting him to turn aggressive as he wasn’t getting anything in response for his continued pursuit. This feeling, I can only imagine, would be considerably worse for teenagers who may not know where to turn or what to do.
A 2017 study by Childnet showed that 31 per cent of 13-17 year-old girls and 11 per cent of 13-17 year-old boys received unwanted sexual messages online that year, and 40 per cent wouldn’t report it as, they think social media companies won't do anything. This proves just how much more needs to be done to make sure children are safe online and do not have to be subject to receiving this content.
This week’s new proposals seem like a great step towards this, as the Government have brought in new legislation to protect children online, in the wake of the Telegraph's campaign for a statutory duty of care. It can't come a moment too soon.