If you’ve seen a picture of a teenager with the features of a cartoon dog superimposed on his or her face, then you’ve seen a Snap.
In 2011, a new app hit the social media scene called Snapchat, promising users that they could send pictures with text and “filters” to their friends privately and that these pictures would only remain for a few seconds before disappearing forever.
Almost immediately alarms sounded to the very real dangers that this app presented. Some young people used the app for “sexting” – sending nude or suggestive images of themselves to romantic interests – believing that the images would soon after disappear. What many people learned was that there were several ways to circumvent the time restriction for images and that the picture that a teenager believed would “go away forever” was around much longer than they wanted. While the app requires you to be friends with someone to send them a picture (or receive one), many teenagers accept friend or follow requests from people they don’t know. Over 17% of young people say they’ve been contacted by someone they didn’t know online in a way that made them feel uncomfortable, further fueling concern over Snapchat.
For a period of time, it seemed that Snapchat would fall out of favor.
But it hasn’t.
Current annual revenue for Snapchat (a public company – Snap, Inc.) is estimated at $300 million annually. Large companies like CNN, Cosmopolitan, and MTV all have dedicated “channels” of content on Snapchat. The app remains highly popular with teenagers.
Back to those dog ears – why are they sending pictures of themselves with dog ears?
Like many things in teen culture, we may not always “get it.” When we don’t understand something, it can be scary – especially as a parent – and we may move to dismiss it or brand it immediately as “evil.” This approach may make us feel better, but often only pushes our teenagers to simply become more secretive about their behaviors rather than stopping them altogether.
Snapchat certainly isn’t a perfect social media platform, but it doesn’t mean everything about it is beyond redemption. To bring you up to speed with the world of Snapchat, there are a few things you need to know:
When you load up your camera you can hold your finger over your face and Snapchat will detect your facial features and give you options for “filters.” These are often goofy, cartoonish filters that change your face or add other elements to the picture. Some of the filters are designed to “enhance” your appearance (called “beauty filters”) by smoothing skin and narrowing your jawline.
How They Can Be Good:
Get Snapchat and send goofy selfies back and forth with your teen. They are more likely to allow you to be friends or a follower on Snapchat because they aren’t opening a public timeline to you (note that this is also one of the challenges of Snapchat). Invite your son or daughter to teach you about his or her favorite filters and how to use them. Spend some time having fun trying the different filters out (there are some filters that allow you to have two people in the picture at once).
How They Can Be Bad:
“Beauty filters” already play on the low-self-esteem that many teenagers feel about their appearance. By digitally altering facial features, teenagers are presented what they think is the ideal, and may learn to disdain reality. It also makes it easier to curate an inaccurate image on social media, which leads to inauthenticity.
A Snap Streak is the number of consecutive days you’ve sent direct Snaps back and forth with a person in your contact list. To continue a streak, you must send a direct Snap to a friend, who must open it and then respond (and then you must open the response). This increases your streak by one day. Sending multiple back and forth Snaps in a day does not increase your streak.
How They Can Be Good:
While it is not nearly as beneficial as face-to-face communication, keeping up a Snap Streak at least keeps people in touch with their friends. At the very best, this daily communication digitally is hopefully mirrored by daily communication in real life.
How They Can Be Bad:
Friendships are often judged on the quality of Snap Streaks. I once proposed to an audience of teenagers that, if they wanted to test their friendships (and their attachment to social media) they should break their Snap Streaks. I was almost boo-ed off stage. For a teenager, breaking a Snap Streak may be equivalent to ending a friendship. Because of this, when a teenager might be separated from his or her phone for a day or when they may be in a place where this no coverage it may cause them high anxiety. It is one friendship “requirement” to fulfill and it is totally technology based.
The “Discover” section
How It Can Be Good:
The “Discover” section of Snapchat allows you to find other people you might know as well as see stories you might be interested in. These stories can include relevant bits of news and can help keep people a bit more informed using visuals (something teens like).
How It Can Be Bad:
Unfortunately, this area is populated with things Snapchat thinks you might be interested in. So, if a teen is interested in music, movies, and celebrities you get a lot of trashy stories. Snapchat has repeatedly been criticized for posting content that is not age-appropriate in this section. Additionally, while the “Discover” section may show you people know (so you can follow them) it can get it wrong. This means that a teen can follow (and be followed) by someone they don’t know – a potential gateway to dangerous situations.
At the end of the day, the key to any technology use is dialogue. Talk with your son and daughter about appropriate use, time limits, and what they can and cannot access. Setting boundaries and enforcing them may not be the most enjoyable exercise in parenting but, when it comes to some modern technology, it is certainly one that will pay benefits over time.