Snapchat is the most popular social media app for teenagers and requires users to be 13 before they sign up. Twenty-eight percent of those in the United States under the age of 18 are using Snapchat, and say it's mostly just to send goofy pictures. But ever since Snapchat launched in 2011, critics have been concerned about its potential uses for sexting and bullying.
While most people's social media network profiles morph into a perfectly curated presentation of best days, fantastic travels and beautiful children, Snapchat wanted to be different. It wanted users to show real life, the good and the ugly, and thought that may happen if each message sent disappeared after a few seconds.
So that's how Snapchat differentiated itself. Users must mutually add each other, and then can send snaps to each other — photos, text and videos — with a set time for self-destruction up to 10 seconds. Thirty million people are all on board with the idea and actively use it every month.
So why have I been so reluctant to allow my teens to sign up?
I'm a bit of a control freak and have kept some sanity by regularly monitoring my kids' phones and tablets for signs of trouble. That is not possible on Snapchat. You won't be able to check anything they send or receive through this app. Parents who allow their children to use Snapchat should have ongoing conversations about using it responsibly. As we all know, nothing on the internet is really ever gone. Why not?
But didn't I say most kids are just sending goofy photos? Yes, and 60 percent of users claim that is their main purpose for using Snapchat. But 25 percent also admit to sending "sensitive content" at some point. That is a big, fat number that makes me nervous. While some users may feel safe in believing that the photo with "sensitive content" will disappear in five seconds, we all know they are fooling themselves.
Snapchat Community Guidelines say things like pornography and sexually explicit content are not allowed. Snapchat even bans creating drawings or captions to a snap that make it sexual, even if it's just a joke. But it does allow for nudity that is wholly non-sexual. Snapchat also bans threats, harassment and bullying and it may remove any such content. Users can always block friends, which means they will no longer be able to view your story or send you snaps at all.
Remind your children, as on any social media, to only add people they truly know. Even though many people send snaps only to specific friends, Snapchat also has stories. Stories are a combination of several snaps and are public to everyone on your friend list. Friends can view your stories as many times as they like for 24 hours, so users should also think carefully about what they post.
One more concern to consider before allowing your kids to download Snapchat is the Discover feature. This is where organizations like E! News and Cosmopolitan can curate news and information. There is no way to opt out of this feature and the posts can possibly contain violence, vulgarity and harsh language.
Common Sense Media recommends kids be 16 before they start using Snapchat. I agree. When kids are finally legally allowed into the social media world at 13, start them off in the shallow end of the pool. Maybe begin with texting, then add Instagram after a while. Let them get their feet wet in the safer parts of the social media world before jumping into the deep end of Snapchat.
Even though I'm dying to do face swap with my son and put a flower crown on my daughter with Snapchat's fun lenses, I'm more concerned about keeping them safe online as long as possible.