Youth Culture Window

Digital Guardians

Dynamic ImagePutting a camera on a cell phone has been as world-changing as putting a man on the moon. After all, millions of young people have sabotaged themselves by sharing nude pics.

Fortunately, there’s a new app to combat this problem. So parents and youth workers can relax, right?

Problems…and Potential Solutions
This generation has one request: send nudes.

Last week a youth worker friend called me up and asked my advice how to handle the scandal in his church right now. A group of teen girls convinced a teen boy to send them a nude pic of himself. The pic ended up being passed around school. The boy got suspended. Nothing happened to the girls. Everyone is talking about it.

It’s an issue I (Jonathan) have had to devote several chapters to in my upcoming book, The Teens Guide to Social Media and Mobile Devices. It happens all the time. And sadly, not many adults are having conversations with their kids about it.

For more than a decade – ever since the advent of camera phones – kids have been taking and sending racy pics of themselves with friends (who then share them with their friends who share them with their friends who…). At first, racy, inappropriate, or outright naked photos were limited to text messages known as “sexts,” but in the mobile-dominated world in which we now live, teenagers have access to apps that enable, enhance, and even encourage this risky behavior.

An obvious culprit is Snapchat. This highly popular app initially promised users that their private messages (of their privates) would “disappear forever”…but do they really? Snapchat has impacted the lives of many young people…often in very negative ways.

But there’s also Instagram. Yeah, I know, Instagram’s terms don’t allow for “violent, nude, partially nude, discriminatory, unlawful, infringing, hateful, pornographic or sexually suggestive photos” but it’s a line that many are willing to blur. (In fact, there was outrage when gymnast McKayla Maroney posted a racy video via her account earlier this week.) And don’t forget that Instagram’s Direct allows plenty of nude images to be shared between consensual users.

We know the costs when kids take and share racy/nude images of themselves; futures can be jeopardized and young lives can be destroyed with the click of a button. It’s a terribly difficult problem for adults to solve…partly because some adults haven’t figured out for themselves that sending racy pics is a bad idea. I’m looking at you Anthony Weiner.

But there’s a new app available to parents and youth workers that, if downloaded and used, can help detect when kids take or receive explicit images. Called Gallery Guardian, the app uses specialized algorithms to spot potential nudity on kids’ devices and then notifies parents via a message to their own smartphone.

So, can Mom and Dad now “outsource” their kids’ digital safety to an app?

Not likely. Journalists from the BBC spoke with the tech creators after testing their software and discussed the app’s shortcomings. Not only did the app return false positives here and there, it also allowed a few explicit pictures to slip through their net. In spite of Gallery Guardian’s current hiccups, the minds behind the app say that their software is continually learning and will only get better as it’s used. Gallery Guardian may be something for parents and youth workers to look into…even though Teen Vogue seems to think it’s an invasion of privacy.

The Best Protection
Mom and Dad, if you’re looking for the best way to help your teens avoid the pain that comes from taking and sending nude or racy pics…look in the mirror! Yep, your jobs are quite secure. Let’s face it; a bankrupt person typically can’t help another poor person, nor can a sick person heal another diseased individual. So we shouldn’t be surprised that technology can’t solve problems that it (inadvertently) created. Filters can’t and never will block everything.

The good news is: you’re better than any app in the world! Helping kids sidestep digital regrets doesn’t require an advanced degree in computer science; it just takes intentionality. Here are a few ideas:


  1. Have ongoing conversations about healthy use of mobile devices. Because it’s a constant part of our teenagers’ lives, we should make sure they hear a consistent voice on the subject, namely ours. Please don’t think that “one talk” will eradicate all present and future temptations. Make sure to broach the subject on a regular basis, and do so with well-crafted questions.
  2. Seize every teachable moment to help them construct a game plan. You don’t have to look very far (or very often) to find the sting that accompanies irresponsible use of smartphones. Sadly, almost every school or neighborhood has a story. When this issue rears its ugly head, grab the opportunity to help your teenager learn a valuable lesson at someone else’s expense. Again, ask questions, but focus on “what would you have done in that situation?” to help them develop a strategy before they need one.
  3. Teach them to manage their mobile habits. This is where the rubber meets the road. At some point, knowledge has to be applied if there’s any hope of avoiding these digital pitfalls. Yes, have the conversations we’ve just outlined to teach them what to do and what not to do, but lead them by example, as well. Hey, the benefits of “SHOW and tell” extend far beyond the Kindergarten classroom.

Parents and youth workers should certainly take advantage of every digital tool that will help them lead teenagers they love, but we must realize that we’re still the greatest guardian…in the real world and the digital world.

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David R. Smith

David R. Smith is the author of several books including Christianity... It's Like This and speaks to parents and leaders across the U.S. David is a 15-year youth ministry veteran, now a senior pastor, who specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.

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