Temporary Messages, Lasting Impact

Colleges and universities face few options to curb inappropriate behavior on Snapchat. Some have turned to educating students about responsible social media use.

February 27, 2015

Keeping an eye on students on Snapchat and other online platforms presents a “moving target” for colleges and universities, administrators say -- shut down one account, and another will appear in its place.

To avoid wasting time on combing through the Internet for student code violators, some institutions are instead focusing their efforts on educating the campus about responsible social media use and giving students a say in how their institution should be portrayed online.

“You try to be proactive as an institution,” said Chris Stansbury, executive director of marketing and communications for student affairs at East Carolina University. “The challenge is there are so many different options out there.”

Snapchat, the smartphone messaging app that lets users send one another pictures and video clips that disappear once they have been viewed, is the latest in a string of Web sites and apps on the agenda for university employees who deal with student conduct. Although the app’s selling point has been its ephemeral messages -- a feature that can make users more willing to send messages with drug use and nudity -- there are several exceptions to that rule.

Users can set messages to disappear after a specific number of seconds, but the timer only starts ticking once the recipient opens the message -- and unread messages are stored on Snapchat’s servers for 30 days. A handful of third-party apps, not condoned by Snapchat, allow recipients to save messages without the sender noticing.

Some students are taking advantage of those loopholes to make Snapchat messages last even longer than intended, sending pictures and videos to unofficial college accounts that aggregate them for every follower to see. Since colleges and universities can ask Snapchat to shut down those accounts, the messages are sometimes reposted to other social media platforms such as Twitter, which can alert followers to new Snapchat accounts -- and so the cycle continues.

In addition to the legal questions the accounts pose for the pictured students, colleges and universities also see the accounts as potentially detrimental to their recruitment efforts.

“For universities and colleges, their image is put on display, and perception is built not on what a university is like, but what people see in social media,” Stansbury said. “It impacts every school.”

East Carolina has since November seen Snapchat messages posted to the Twitter profile ECUNation. Compared to other unofficial university Twitter accounts that aggregate Snapchat messages, it is relatively tame (though comments retweeted by the account often refer to pictures featuring drugs and nudity).

“My advice: Don't put your face in snaps that involve illegal activities,” the account recommended in January. “ECU Nation is what the ECU student body makes it. You guys are in control of what is sent in to our account. Just be smart about your posts.”

Since the users behind the ECUNation Snapchat account altered East Carolina’s logo -- a pirate -- to use as its profile picture, the university has been able to use trademark law to request the account be taken down. After a recent appeal to Snapchat’s legal team, the company deactivated one of the accounts within 48 hours, Stansbury said.

“The downside to that is that a new one will just open up,” Stansbury said. “It’s the flashlight on the wall that you pin down and it keeps moving.”

The ECUNation Twitter account has treated the university’s attempts to stifle it with indifference. “We got shut down again,” the account tweeted last week. “Spread the word & follow the backup account --->> ecunationsnaps.”

A Snapchat spokeswoman, speaking on background, said accounts such as the ones created at East Carolina may violate the company’s terms of use and community guidelines. Once a user has had an account removed or suspended, she said, they are prohibited from creating new accounts.

Other unofficial accounts, such as iastate_snaps at Iowa State University, don’t use any university branding. The institution is therefore unable to use East Carolina’s strategy, said Annette Hacker, a spokeswoman for the university.

Enforcement may become an even less viable alternative as students continue to move away from Web sites and toward apps. With confession Web sites, for example, institutions could block access for students connected to the campus network. When the platform becomes an app created first and foremost for mobile devices, users no longer rely on the institution’s network to access it.

“Unfortunately, there is little we can do about them other than to monitor, report inappropriate content (which we’ve done dozens of times over the past several months) and continue to educate our community about responsible social media use,” Hacker said in an e-mail. “It is discouraging to see these sorts of accounts, because images can live online forever. We encourage all students to think carefully about their safety and privacy before posting any content, anywhere.”

That’s the same policy promoted by the Association for Student Conduct Administration, said Laura Bennett, the organization’s president. Since the creators of the Snapchat accounts are often anonymous, investigations frequently fail to turn up the student behind the account. In those cases, she said, it may be more beneficial for institutions to focus on teaching students to be mindful of how their social media use could reflect on them in the future.

“The bottom line is we typically will deal with the behavior, not necessarily the specific venue,” Bennett said. “I think universities are becoming better at turning to nondisciplinary ways of addressing this.”

At East Carolina, freshman seminars now include lessons on social media and personal branding. “It’s to make sure they understand that a quick chat, a quick tweet or post -- it doesn’t go away,” Stansbury said. “You may be a freshman now, but six years from now, when you sit in front of a potential employer, they may have access to that.”


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