The Dark Side of Snapchat and Teens

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Snapchat is an application for mobile devices that allows users to send photos and videos (called snaps) to other users. However, unlike with photos or videos sent via text or email, those sent on Snapchat disappear seconds after they're viewed—the sender gets to decide how long a photo will "live," from one to 10 seconds, after it's viewed. The idea is that users can send time-limited photos that might be embarrassing or just silly without a significant fear that it will find its way to other social media sites where it might live forever.

Sounds good, in theory, but the problem is that there actually are ways to capture and recover images, which is why no one should develop a false sense of security about sending them.

The Origins

Snapchat was developed by Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, two Stanford University students who felt emoticons weren't sufficient to transmit the emotion someone might wish could be sent with a text message. But they were also nervous that a quick snap of a cellphone camera showing a particular emotion might end up being inappropriate for a social media site where the picture could be posted for all the world to see. Thus, the concept of a time-limited photo-sharing application was born.

How SnapChat Works

Once the Snapchat application is downloaded from the App Store or from Google Play, the user registers and sets a password. It then accesses your contacts on your cellphone to load friends to the application, or you can add other friends beyond your contact list.

Once you load the app and log in, you can take a photo, edit it, add a caption or other "doodles." Then you select the friends to send the photo to and set a timer from one to 10 seconds. After the photo is sent, the receiver has the time set by the timer after they access the app to look at the photo before the message "self-destructs."

Friends can then take their own photo to reply or just send a message back.

Popularity

Snapchat is wildly popular, with 40 percent of teens ages 13 to 17 using the app, according to 2015 research by the Pew Research Group. Consider these stats, compiled by Omnicore :

  • In 2018, Snapchat had an average of 188 million daily active users that generated over three billion snaps a day.
  • Active Snapchatters open the app 25 times a day.
  • More than 60 percent of active Snapchatters create new content on a daily basis.
  • On average, users spend 34.5 minutes a day on Snapchat and send 34 messages a day.

Parental Concerns

Despite its popularity, parents are right to be concerned about Snapchat—there are a host of issues that can compromise kids' safety.

First of all, for parents who monitor their children's smartphone use, Snapchat doesn't save pictures and messages sent so you can see them later. If you have a software package that allows you to see the content of your child's phone remotely online, you won't be able to see what was sent and then automatically deleted. That may raise some concerns.

Secondly, while the photo message disappears from the phone after a few seconds, it doesn't prevent the receiver from snapping a screenshot of the photo while it's live. To Snapchat's credit, if a receiver takes a screenshot of the photo, the sender is notified, but that may not be enough to prevent the photo from being shared later with others.

In addition, if a receiver knows that a message is coming, he could take a photo of the screen with another phone or digital camera and the sender would never know that their supposedly evaporating photo would be alive and well on someone else's device.

Finally, because of the lower risks of having a photo eventually making the rounds of the Internet, it's also tempting for teens to use Snapchat for "sexting." Snapchat itself admits that up to 25 percent of users may send sensitive content on a regular basis “experimentally.” One father, whose daughter was being bullied via Snapchat—a reportedly all-too-common occurrence—was able to use this workaround for good when he recorded one of the bullying snaps by taking a video of it on his own phone.

Parents who allow their children to have Snapchat need to have a serious discussion with their kids to discuss the risks associated with the false sense of security that Snapchat may provide.

Other Snapchat Features

Since its creation in 2011, Snapchat has added other features that parents should be aware of.

Snap Map

Introduced in 2017, Snap Map allows users to share their location in real-time with anyone on their Snapchat friend list and see the locations of their friends who do the same. The feature is a way to use the location services already available in many other smartphone apps. Since some of their Snapchat contacts may not be real friends, this is a big risk. Unless there's a specific event and it makes it easier for friends to know each other's location, experts advise leaving Snap Map off or using it in "ghost mode," which allows you to see the location of friends who haven't hidden their locations.

Discover

Launched in 2015, the Discover feature allows you to see content from popular media channels—many of which offer sexually oriented content. Although Snapchat's terms of service discourage explicit content, these channels include images posted from magazines, television stations, and other content providers that can be inappropriate for children. For example, some of the popular channels featured on Discover include MTV, Cosmopolitan, Vice, and BuzzFeed.

A lawsuit filed in California in 2016 cited some of the offensive Snapchat Discover content including "people share their secret rules for sex" and "10 things he thinks when he can't make you orgasm." Not many parents would be comfortable with their tweens and teens having immediate access to articles like these.

Snapstreaks

A Snapstreak occurs when two users have snapped back and forth within a 24-hour period for three days in a row. Once this occurs, a flame emoji and a number will appear next to the streakers' names to show how long the streak has been maintained. Maintaining streaks is very important to teens because streaks allow kids to interact socially and feel part of something many of their peers are doing. For many kids, they're a measure of their friendships. Experts worry, though, that the pressure of keeping a streak going—teens are often maintaining many streaks at the same time—may take a toll on kids.

Safeguards

It's important to note that Snapchat does have a minimum age of 13, which is in compliance with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. When it's downloaded, Snapchat asks for your date of birth, and—if you're under 13—you're redirected to the kid version, called "SnapKidz," which is more restrictive than Snapchat (for instance, you can't add friends or share anything). That said, it's not uncommon for underage kids to find a workaround (that is, using a fake birthdate) so they can open an account.

The Bottom Line

Snapchat can be a fun and engaging app when used appropriately. But it should be used carefully and with very specific ground rules or not used at all. Apps like Snapchat remind parents that they need to be vigilant about their children's smartphone use and to monitor their activity to prevent problems like sexting, cyberstalking, cyberbullying, or other elements of the dark side of smartphone use by children.

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Article Sources

Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Pew Research Center. Teens, Social Media & Technology Overview 2015.

  2. Omnicore Agency. Snapchat Statistics.

  3. Shah J, Das P, Muthiah N, Milanaik R. New age technology and social media: adolescent psychosocial implications and the need for protective measures. Curr Opin Pediatr. 2019;31(1):148-156. doi:10.1097/MOP.0000000000000714

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