There's a new combatant in the war for my 12-year-old son's time and attention: Snapchat. The jury -- that would primarily be me with some occasional input from his Dad when football playoffs aren't on TV -- is still out on this new app, which I recently discovered on my son's phone.
Screen time in our household is regarded as a privilege, not a right. If left to his own devices -- and I do mean the electronic ones -- my son would be on them 24/7. A few months ago we addressed the problem and removed all screens. When he demonstrated self-control and proved to us that he had restored balance to his life, we gradually reintroduced the use of electronics on a limited and controlled basis.
But a big part of that control is knowing what he does with the screen time we give him. Before the screen blackout, he had played Minecraft until his eyes blurred, used Instagram to "rate" girls in his class, and Skyped with a kid whose handle was "I Will Kill." Yes, for real. I called the mom of the Skyper.
And now along comes Snapchat, created by Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, two Stanford guys who may or may not have been targeting 12-year-olds in their market demographics. But whether teens and pre-teens were the intended users is irrelevant; they are definitely among them.
Snapchat is something Anthony Weiner could have invented, or at least probably wished he had. It works like this: You take a photo and send it to a friend and it self-destructs in under 10 seconds, just like the secret agent's instructions on "Mission Impossible." Its mascot is Ghostface Chillah, and he's a busy little ghost with 50 million snaps being shared each day.
Slate's Farhad Manjoo came close to what I'm thinking when he wrote last week that "Like most people born before the 1990s, I'm not a Snapchat user, and I've long assumed the worst about the app -- that combining cameras; young people; and secret, self-destructing messages could only mean trouble."
Certainly, it's the perfect tool for sexting: You get to show off your privates and there's no evidence left for extortion later. It also means that your Mom, who is doing her best to police what you do online, doesn't get to see what you send to your friends. For the record, I don't really think my son -- who thinks it's cool to take and send photos of his new Van's or the ski trail we are on -- is revealing anything congressionally inappropriate ala Weiner.
My question is why a 12-year-old needs disappearing photos in the first place. And so we had a chat, starting with the why.
"It's harmless, Mom," he said.
"That doesn't answer the question," I replied, thinking that the last time I uttered those words Richard Nixon was being interviewed on TV.
"It's only to my friends," he tried. Right, the same friends who you snickered with when you rated the girls in your class on Instagram, my little Prince Charming who will one day understand that girls like you better when you show them respect.
"Everybody has this," he continued. Advice to children everywhere: These words are a red cape being waved in front of the bull that is your mother. Say them and the case is closed. As is this one. Jury dismissed.