It’s often said that the internet is written in ink, not in pencil. In other words, be careful what you post, because it can stick around for a long time. But some apps are choosing to make a feature out of disappearing content.
The biggest name in disappearing content until now has been Snapchat. Any videos and photos you send on the app (known as ‘snaps’) can only be opened for a few seconds. If you add them to your ‘Snapchat story’ they’re deleted after 24 hours.
Now, Facebook is looking to join the trend with some of their own apps. WhatsApp is rolling out a new feature that automatically deletes messages after seven days, while the new ‘Vanish’ mode on Instagram and Messenger will delete anything in a chat - videos, images, text and emojis - as soon as the chat is closed. Even Twitter is getting in on the action with 'Fleets' - message that disappear within 24 hours, like a Snapchat story.
But why are social networks so keen on making our messages disappear? And is the feature all it’s cracked up to be?
Why do apps use disappearing content?
- Scarcity creates demand. If users know that their friends’ ‘Stories’ on Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat will disappear at the end of the day, they’re more likely to get into the habit of checking those apps every single day.
- Disappearing messages make people feel more secure. People who are worried about their private information falling into the wrong hands might feel more at ease if they know their messages are fleeting - especially in countries with less freedom of speech.
- Mistakes seem like less of a problem. We’ve all sent a tweet or made a post that we looked back on and cringed, but disappearing messages mean less embarrassment in the long term.
What are the downsides?
- There’s no guarantee that content is gone forever. On apps like Snapchat it’s easy for users to take a screenshot and save a picture or a message before it disappears (although some apps will send you a notification if they detect a screenshot has been taken).
- It can make things more difficult for parents. Most people will love the idea of their text messages and images being harder for others to see, but it’s difficult for parents to keep track of what children are doing on their devices if content disappears after a limited time.
- Disappearing evidence. If a child is being groomed online or being harassed by cyberbullies, disappearing content can make it harder for trusted adults to realise there’s a problem and intervene.
So what can we do to tackle this problem
If you’re a parent and you’re worried about something disappearing and slipping under your radar, there are a few things you can do to help regain control:
- Change the settings on your child’s device
Unlike Snapchat stories or Twitter fleets, both WhatsApp’s disappearing messages and Instagram’s ‘Vanish Mode’ are optional extras, and it’s easy to opt out of them.
- For WhatsApp, just open a chat and tap on a contact’s name. Then tap on Disappearing Messages, hit Continue and then Off.
- In Instagram, ‘Vanish Mode’ is activated by swiping up when you’re in a chat (you’ll know that it’s activated because the screen will turn black, like it does if you open up a private internet browser). To turn the mode off again, just hit the button at the top of the page marked Turn Off Vanish Mode.
- Enable parental controls
If you’re worried about your children getting disappearing messages from people they don’t know, you can edit the settings of most major apps to limit these kinds of messages from appearing in the first place. Our Online Safety Guides include step-by-step instructions to help you do this, and you can download them for free from our website.
- Ask your child if they think disappearing content is really private
As we’ve already discussed, just because something disappears off your child’s device doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. Anybody can take a screenshot of a private message and share it around the world in just a few minutes. Making sure your child understands this will help them to be more cautious when they chat online.
- Make sure they know who their trusted adults are
As much as we might like to, we can’t watch over our children’s shoulders 24/7. If your children do find themselves in an uncomfortable situation, the best thing you can do is make sure they feel comfortable talking about it with you. Our blog section has plenty of guidance to help you become a good internet role model, and make yourself available as a trusted adult.
Natterhub has reimagined social media to create a tool that teaches primary school children to be safe online. It has everything you’d expect, like profiles and a central news feed, but it’s gated for extra security and peace of mind. Our interactive lessons give children all the skills that they need to thrive in a digital landscape, and our Badges of Honour help teachers to keep track of their progress. Powered by TwinklHive, 2,500 teachers in over 40 countries are using Natterhub in their classrooms.