Long term consequences of spontaneous decisions can be substantial. With the apparent permanence and searchability of modern social media, a callous comment or less than flattering photo can come back to haunt you. Many parents know teens are not renowned for thinking long term, and therefore encourage their kids to be careful with what they share online. What does what your child post, like, comment on, and share? What does that say about them? How will they feel about that prank or party photo if it comes up in a social media profile check when they are applying for a job? Will they even know, or will they simply find it hard to get an interview?
Add to this constant advice the fact that teens see through the hypocrisy of perfectly groomed social media profiles, and it is no wonder there is an attraction to anything that offers an alternative to the performance anxiety arising from being "always on" (on show, on guard, on 24/7) in the social media world.
That's the attraction and marketing of applications like snapchat and the less successful copycat app from Facebook called Poke. The marketing talks about the joy of the ephemeral, fleeting moments of emotional connection, and the freedom from the need to be perfect, because it's NOT permanent. Both apps allow users to send self destructing photos or videos to friends, or at least that's the intent.
What is snapchat all about?
Even though snapchat appears to provide an answer to concerns about permanent digital footprints, it seems that parents are never happy. Surely an app designed to only show a photo for as short as 1 second, to a maximum of 10 seconds is tailor made for sexting? A view which there may be a seed of truth in.
Snapchat was originally named Picaboo and was born out of regret about a photo that should not have been sent. Emails that came to light during a legal battle between the app's creators suggest sexting was at least one motivation behind the app.
An app that appears to promise the destruction of "evidence" also provides a potential vehicle for cyberbullying and harassment. Even though as we will see, destruction is not really guaranteed, taking effort to keep photos and messages meant to be unpleasant is itself not something you want to do.
Like any technology though, how it is used is really a question of the character and motivation of the user. So how should parents respond to apps like SnapChat and Poke if their teen wants to use it?
A parent's guide to snapchat
The initial step when approaching any technology is to be informed, so let's take a closer look.
Firstly, although the attraction is that images and videos are not permanent, at a practical level this is only an illusion, providing a false sense of security. Anyone relying on it will be sadly disappointed. The app is designed to warn the sender if the recipient takes a screen shot, but a warning is useless if you didn't want anyone to keep a copy - and there are plenty of videos and web pages to show you how to circumvent that feature. Once captured, the photos and videos can be posted, shared and made permanent.
Secondly snapchat provides a 12 page PDF parents' guide that explains much of what parents need to know. Here are some of the more important points.
Like most social media apps, the age for a snapchat account is 13 in order to comply with the US Child Online Protection Act (COPA). There is also a snapkidz app for under thirteens which allows younger kids to take photos, caption and draw on them but not send them to anyone via the app itself. Clearly snapchat understands the power of getting them onto the brand young.
snapchat can find your friends from other online services like Facebook and from your device's address book. To send someone a message (photo or video) they need to be in your "My Friends" list, and you can set up your account to only accept messages from people in that list. You can also block users if you don't want to receive messages from them.
If necessary, parents can also request their child's snapchat account be deleted.
Another thing parents should know, is that after all the talk of having messages last just 10 seconds, snapchat has introduced 'snapchat stories' where photos live for 24 hours. It's meant to be a stream of photos that tell your story.
Your kids and snapchat
Once armed with information about technology, parents need to teach and model the responsible use of technology to their children. Talking with your teen about why their friends like snapchat and why they want to use it is important.
The risks for misuse will vary based on the social set that your teen is a part of, the culture of their peer group, and your own child's character and values. Have you taught and modelled kindness online, and how to be a humble encourager; defending others rather than bullying?
If you haven't done so already, all teens need to understand the very serious issues around sexting. It is important that the conversation is not solely focused on regret and long term consequences of digital footprints. All teens need to know that sexting falls into the category of "possession and transmission of child pornography" in the eyes of the law. There is no allowance for consent or any leniency just because a child took the photo themselves. Above all, impart a healthy understanding of God's purpose for sexual intimacy in marriage and that sexting, whether ephemeral or not, can undermine the joy of that precious relationship.
After getting informed, teaching and modelling, parents need to protect, supervise and trust. Protection may begin with deciding snapchat and apps like it are something you will choose not to partake in. Perhaps for a season or perhaps as a choice for a longer term. My own belief is that snapchat is not appropriate for junior teens. The challenge with snapchat compared to other social media apps is that the 'supervise phase' is harder because the app is designed to destroy anything you might supervise. While you could potentially ask your child only to use it with you present, that's a pretty big cramp on their style if they want to use it with their friends.
The difficulty with supervision is it makes trust more important from the outset, but it is also more difficult to assess trustworthiness without supervision. It is important if you decide your teen is ready for snapchat to keep the dialogue open. And even though it might feel like nagging, make sure they remember that sending any photo even if it is meant to self destruct, is an act of trust in the recipient.