With 283 million daily active users, Snapchat may not be the most popular social media app out there (that's Facebook, with over 2 billion users), but it is one of the most downloaded ones for tweens and teens—20% of users are 18 and younger. The messaging app got even more popular during the pandemic. Why?
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On a basic level, kids miss their friends. "Social media is used to socialize," says child psychiatrist Kathleen Rivera. "Similar to when phones first became popular and kids/teenagers would spend hours talking to their friends on the phone. Social media is easy to access, and it's there 24/7."
Snapchat plays right into this, letting them connect quickly, maybe even just for a second, with their friends. It's also free entertainment thanks to all the fun filters available to add to photos and videos. Curious to see what you look like with rainbow hair? With teddy bear ears? With cute glasses and freckles? You can find out on Snapchat!
That said, there's more to the platform beyond the ability for kids to add a flower crown to a photo or sound effects to a selfie with the dog. "While it can be pure, innocent fun for you and your children, without proper supervision, it can lead to dire results," says Joy Altimare, chief engagement and brand officer of EHE Health.
Whether your kids are nagging to add Snapchat to their digital devices or are already snapping away, here's everything parents need to know, from the basics to the biggest pros and cons of teens using Snapchat.
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What is Snapchat?
While Snapchat is probably best known as a messaging app, it's much more than that. First, it's a virtual photo booth, allowing users to take an instant picture or video known as a "Snap" then augment them with fun filter features your regular phone camera doesn't have. You can change your background, activate effects to change your voice, or add items to your image like a cat sitting on your head or stars in your eyes.
Next comes the "Chat" part of the app, which is when users share their photo or video with selected friends. "Pictures or videos sent to friends are automatically erased, they're not saved in a feed like on Facebook or Instagram," explains Talia Arnold, head of strategy at digital media company Exverus. Although that's a positive, the "sending to friends" part is also why you can't follow your kids like you would on other platforms. Chats are a moment in time that can't really be saved; although you can technically grab a screenshot, doing so notifies the sender.
Are there other features besides Snapchat filters?
Kids can also find games and quizzes to play with friends, celebrity videos, news and entertainment channels, and even video calling on Snapchat. These added features boost Snapchat's straight up entertainment value and put in on a level closer to TikTok, says Altimare.
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How old do kids have to be to use Snapchat?
What's a Snapstreak?
If your kids are active on Snapchat, you'll no doubt hear them mention their "streaks." A Snapstreak is a record of how many days you've interacted with another user, sending at least one interaction in a 24-hour period, explains Shayna Cohen a social media marketing expert at Laundry Service media agency. For example, friends would send messages (photo/video/written) to one another at least one time a day, creating a Snapstreak, which is highlighted with a flame icon that counts the days in the streak. After a streak goes silent for 24 hours, it vanishes from your app. Some say it's a sign of how friendly you are, while others say it can cause people to be addicted to continuing that streak, Cohen adds. (We've heard of kids giving access to their Snapchat accounts to friends while they're at camp or traveling to continue their streaks).
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The Pros of Snapchat for Kids
Parents might be surprised to hear that Snapchat is actually a much more controlled environment than you might think, says Cohen. Here are a few pros of letting your kids snap away:
Content is more curated.
Snapchat's Publisher content, she says, is curated based on interests and is less likely to provide children with content they shouldn't be seeing. You can also follow Publishers, which showcases those channels you feel comfortable with them seeing.
Photos aren't displayed permanently.
In some sense, Snapchat could potentially be safer for kids to use that other apps, adds Arnold, because content isn't displayed permanently for anyone with malicious intentions to go and find later. "It also doesn't feed the same hunger for 'likes' that the other social platforms do, where it's all about displaying the most perfect picture to gain as many 'likes' as possible," she says.
There's less risk of messages from strangers.
Lastly, you have to have someone's information (phone number and username) to interact with them. This is opposite of other platform that allow for strangers to send unsolicited messages to users, adds Arnold.
The Cons of Snapchat for Kids
But like any social platform—Facebook, Instagram, TikTok—images posted can end up in the hands of those who have ill-intent. Therefore, it is so important that parents educate children on the simple rule of the internet: once it's sent, you lose control over who sees it—and anyone can share it. Here are the biggest things for parents to know:
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Kids are convinced that their photos will "disappear" forever.
Altimare emphasizes that parents should tell kids it's important to think before you share. This is super important with Snapchat because photos and videos appear to disappear after they are viewed—but, we all know that you can take a screen shot of any photo, save it, and even share it later.
The "screenshot alert" is not foolproof.
Kids will argue with you that with the "alert" screenshot function, they'll also know if someone has taken a screenshot. However, there's nothing to stop a viewer from taking a picture of the screen using another device. So the moment that disappears from the screen is now a permanent part of someone else's image library, and that's a problem.
Since snaps, disappear they can't be monitored.
For parents of children under 18, says Altimare, it's important to understand the dangers of this feature as it can almost be impossible to see what snaps are being sent or received—which makes it easier for inappropriate content or bullying content to be shared and sent. "Therefore, open communications (and monitoring) is recommended if you allow your children to participate on this platform."
How to Keep Your Kids Safe on Snapchat
If you chose to allow your child to be a part of the Snapchat trend, start by using it as an opportunity to talk to them about safety and responsibility in this ever-changing virtual world. Be transparent and let them know you'll be checking their account since it's your job to protect them. Ask them to show you some the cool features as they learn more about the platform, engaging in something that they are interested in will help keep the lines of communication open and continue to establish trust, says Altimare.
Recently the company announced their Family Center, a new set of tools which will allow caregivers to view their teen's contacts and monitor their connections without taking away their autonomy. According to executives, parents won't be able to see the content their child is sending or receiving, but they can see who their child has interacted with within the last seven days. The new tool is only for parents who have kids younger than 18.
Nona Farahnik, director of platform policy for Snap, the company that makes Snapchat, said this new feature models everyday parenting and, "offers parents the ability to ask who someone might be, how they might know a contact, which prompts those kinds of real-time conversations about who teens are talking to."
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While monitoring can be difficult for most parents since there is not a feed like other social media platforms, experts recommend going another route. "I would suggest focusing on the privacy settings," says Altimare. "This is great to limit exposure and ensure that people who you know are the only ones who can see your snaps. Also, turning off the location view is a very important tip to keep you and your family safe from any unwanted in-person visitors."
Sit down with your child and go into the apps settings, the gear icon next to the profile image. Scroll down to the "Who can" section and make these privacy tweaks:
- For "Contact Me" and "View My Story," choose "My Friends" and not "Everyone."
- For "See My Location," select "Ghost Mode" which will prevent anyone from knowing where your child is (you can choose to select certain friends that they can share location with, but make sure that this option is discussed with you).
- Finally, by deselecting "Quick Add" other app users will have to request your child's Snapchat handle instead of automatically finding it in lists of suggested friends. These help ensure that only your children's friends are able to engage with them.