It’s a nearly universal question among parents and it hardly ever gets a proper answer: Is Snapchat safe for kids?
It’s important first to understand the history of Snapchat, its appeal as a social network, and whether or not any safety incidents (or accidents) have happened in the past.
Snapchat’s original audience was not tweens or teens
Snapchat was founded in 2011 by then college kids Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy. They wanted to encourage a more genuine social media experience by replicating the moments that happen in real life, which by their nature are ephemeral or fleeting.
They happen once, are spontaneous, and are not easily replicated.
The idea is people will be more authentic with their Snaps, sending non-perfect moments filled with humor and spontaneity. Unlike Instagram, perfection isn’t the goal here. “Real life” is. The app caught on in a very cult-like way, starting with college campuses on the West Coast (notably Stanford University, Spiegel’s alma mater) and then spreading to colleges across the United States. It’s important to note that college-age people — not middle or high school people — were the original first use case for Snapchat.
As time went on, the app became increasingly popular with younger and younger people. Now it’s the most popular apps among U.S. high school students, with 79% of all teens using it, according to Business Insider. In fact, for many teens, getting a Snapchat account has now become the digital equivalent of a first date.
Spontaneity + poor judgement: How Snapchat can be a disaster for kids
Messages sent through Snapchat are supposed to disappear. That’s what makes it fun, but it also creates a false sense of security. Sure, in theory messages disappear forever, but Snapchat keeps everything on its server. And all it takes is a swipe to the right, or a screenshot, for the recipient to keep whatever you just sent them — forever.
In the early days of Snapchat, there were even entire apps dedicated to helping you take screenshots without alerting the sender that you just copied their snap (ouch). This has been used to “out” a sender and can lead to some embarrassing (and worse) outcomes.
17 year old Jonathan Chow jumped to his death after trying to perform a stunt at a mall in Singapore. He told his friend he’d do it if she’d help record it on Snapchat. There are also countless stories about teens who have sent nude pictures through Snapchat only to later regret it in a big way. This is why many people refer to Snapchat as “the sexting app.”
One Irish teen has been using Snapchat to help victims of domestic abuse.
All things considered, however, Snapchat definitely encourages spontaneity, which by its definition means acting without thinking.
Also, if you’ve been privy to the struggles the company has faced post-IPO, you won’t be surprised to hear that they have attempted to “gamify” their app to get its existing user base to spend more time on it.
Why Snapstreaks can lead to obsessive checking in
A “Snapstreak” is a simple number that tells you how many days in a row you have been messaging with someone on Snapchat. Any time two people have Snapped each other within 24 hours for more than three consecutive days, it’s considered a Snapstreak. It sounds innocent enough, but this simple feature has lead to some obsessive behavior to “keep the streak going.”
CBS even did a special on tech companies that do “brain hacking” to get users hooked on their products.
How to deal with your kids using Snapchat
There is a fine line between healthy use and downright addiction. A writer from the Huffington Post wrote about how she combated her 15-year-old’s addiction to Snapchat after her grades started to slip. The parents decided to force their daughter to delete the app and live without it. According to the writer, after plenty of fighting, begging and pleading to get it back, their daughter eventually learned to live without Snapchat and her grades went back up.
So is banning the app practical for most families? Probably not. According to research, a far more effective approach is to limit your child’s overall time on social networks. Studies reveal that “hyper-networked” teens — those who spend upwards of three hours daily on social media — are especially vulnerable to experiencing higher anxiety and lower self esteem. For many families, giving their children access to specific social networks while monitoring the amount of time spent on them is an effective, long-term strategy for keeping kids connected and protected online.
SnapKidz and other Snapchat alternatives
In the world of the ephemeral “status update,” many have tried to ride Snapchat’s wave by cloning its most popular feature, The Story. Facebook’s popular platform Instagram outright copied the feature themselves, even calling their own version “Stories.”
Instagrams Stories has recently become more popular than Snapchat’s version. Other popular platforms to look out for with middle and high school students are WhatsApp and Muscial.ly.
WhatsApp is a simple text messaging app, while Muscial.ly is an elaborate app that lets users lip sync and dance to their favorite songs, and send the 15-second spots off to friends and strangers alike.
While Snapchat does have a few loops that make it not as private as some parents would like, it’s actually much better than some other apps that target this demo — namely, it beats out geolocation-based anonymous messaging apps like the now-defunct Yik-Yak and Musical.ly.
Cyberdust is very much like Snapchat, although the platform is more secure and is based more around sending disappearing texts than images. While you might see a handful of kids trying out Cyberdust, it’s really more popular with adults and hasn’t seen nearly the amount of traction that Snapchat has.
Snapkidz is a “sandbox” app made by Snapchat creators. It’s meant for kids under 13 and allows users to take pictures of themselves and add filters, just like the more grown-up version of the social network. The difference is, however, there’s no way to send your pictures to other users on SnapKidz. The images stay on the device. SnapKidz works when someone signs up for the app and they admit, truthfully, that they are under the age of 13.
Does anyone actually do this? Maybe, if kids are sitting right next to mom and dad when they sign up for a Snapchat account. Even then, they can easily create a new account when no one is looking.
If SnapKidz is not going to be effective, so what can a parent do to make Snapchat as safe as possible for their kids?
Making Snapchat safer for kids
Help your child make the app far safer by turning off its geolocation feature called “Snapmaps.” This allows fellow Snapchatters to see the location of everyone on their friends’ list, any time they open the app. This was a fun feature when it first came out (for adults), but its potential for teens is not good, both from a safety perspective, as well as due to the fact that it directly feeds the FOMO flames. Kids can easily see who’s with whom, and who isn’t. Of course the bigger concern for parents is that if a stranger adds your child to their friends’ list, they can now see the exact location of your child.
Even Wired called Snapmaps a “stalkerish feature”!
To guard against this, we’ve put out a video to help you turn this feature off on your child’s account:
Before adjusting this setting, explain to your child why it’s a bad idea to have the feature enabled.
Another account setting that should be addressed is making sure people can’t contact or see their Stories if they haven’t added them as friends. This is an easy fix: Simply open the app on your child’s phone and make sure they are logged into their account. Make sure you are on the camera screen (it opens up to this when you launch the app). Put your finger on the screen and swipe up to bring up the profile settings option.
On the top right of the screen, tap the gear icon and scroll down to “View My Story” and “Contact Me.”
Make sure both of these are turned to “My Friends.”
Now you have made sure no strangers can reach out to your child.