Parents' Guide to Snapchat

Is Snapchat safe for kids? How does it work? And what's with Snapstreaks? Everything curious parents need to know about this ultra-popular app.

Snapchat is one of the most popular social media and messaging services.  Users create image-based snaps and combine them into a story that their followers can view.  It has free apps available for iOS and Android and most of its features are free to use although users can spend money to gain content.

Is Snapchat safe for children?  Does Snapchat have any educational value for kids?  This Snapchat App review considers these questions.  Parents should be comfortable with the answers before they let their children sign up to the Snapchat apps.


Parent Guide to Snapchat

What is Snapchat?

Snapchat is a social media and messaging service that has become very popular, especially with younger people. It distinguishes itself from other social media services by limiting the length of time that messages and images can be accessed on its app - although this does not mean that they cannot be stored and retrieved using other means.

Many young people are in no doubt that Snapchat is an entertaining app that they wish to have - parents may not be so sure its fun value outweighs their safety concerns. Parents often ask, "Is Snapchat safe for kids?"  

This Snapchat app review will weigh up its educational value to kids against the risks inherent in any social media, but particularly in Snapchat.

How does Snapchat work?

Snapchat's communication is focused on 'the moment'. Rather than building up a timeline of messages, news and so on, Snapchat is designed to encourage users to communicate and post more often, building up a story of recent activities and events. Each user can add friends from people they know or invite them to follow them. Users can also find new people to follow by searching for names and user names.

Communication in Snapchat is most commonly done by creating and sending snaps and stories that expire in time. Other communication methods, such as chats, also exist in the app.

Snaps are multimedia messages consisting of photos, images, and text. An initial photo is embellished and edited with text, frames and graphical effects to turn it into a snap.  Snaps can be sent individually or combined into a story 

Stories are collections of snaps that play in the order that each snap was created.

Recipients can be individuals, groups, everyone who is a contact or a custom list. These are defined in the settings and can be different for each aspect of Snapchat communication such as stories or snaps.

Frequently communicating with friends is rewarded by the app with a score and on-screen awards. New ways of embellishing snaps can be purchased or earned by engaging with brands.

Snapchat users can use the settings to control how public a snap or a story is. While anyone with a Snapchat account can follow another Snapchat user, the app does allow for contacts to be deleted or blocked. 

Deleted contacts can view anything a user makes public but not anything they send only to friends.  

Blocked contacts cannot see anything a user publishes.

How old do you have to be to use Snapchat?

Snapchat's user agreement requires that users are aged at least 13. As you will see in this Snapchat app review, this should not be seen as being a suitable minimum age for all, or perhaps any, children.

Do messages really disappear on Snapchat?

The snaps shared in Snapchat have the appearance of disappearing after a set amount of time but this appearance can be deceptive. As Snapchat's own safety guidelines make clear, senders have no way to guarantee that those who view their messages are not capturing the screen of their device.

All mobile devices can grab an image of the screen and a second device could take a photograph of the screen The original sender will receive a notification that the image was captured in a normal screengrab but this does not let them do anything about it. Some third-party apps can even take a screen grab that does not alert the sender. 

What are Snapstreaks?

Snapstreaks are like a continued volley of snaps being sent between friends. If this volley is kept up over three days or more, then that is a Snapstreak. It is marked by an increase in the Snapchat score of the friends involved and is marked by graphical badges called emojis.

What's Snap Map?

Snap Map shows the location of Snapchat users. There are different statuses that users can set for the Snap Map. Ghost mode means that nobody can see their location. When they do want to appear on the Snapmap, users can choose whether all of their friends can see them or only certain, chosen friends.

The map is accurate enough to expose addresses and not everybody on a person's Snapchat friend list is going to be somebody they know in real life. Snap Map is a feature that all people but especially kids must be very careful about enabling.

What's a Snapchat story?

Snaps are compiled into a sequence that provides a story of an event or experience. These can then be shared with friends. Snapchat Stories can be put forward to be made public and shared across the whole platform. These are selected and curated by Snapchat itself and it is seen as quite an achievement to have a story selected but it does mean that the creator's control over those images is lost as they become viewable by the wider world.

What's a Snapcode?

Snapchat does not want its users to be restricted to only friends that they know in the real world. It makes discovering new contacts easy and Snapcodes are one way that it does this. Each user has a Snap Code in the form of a QR-like code (they are yellow and have dots on them as well as the Snapchat logo) that other people can capture on their device to become a friend. These can be reshared so that friends of friends and so on can also become Snapchat contacts.

The ease of sharing Snapcodes is one reason why Snapchat contact lists often grow beyond the people a person knows in real life.  

What's Discover?

Snapchat was first built to let people communicate with each other as individuals or groups but a feature added later expanded upon this. Discovery allows people, businesses, and organisations to send out their content to be viewed by Snapchat users.

Snapchat Discover contains a great deal of marketing and advertising. Brands, products and famous people have feeds that users can subscribe to in Snapchat's Discover. Users follow these feeds and are encouraged to engage with mini-activities like quizzes and short videos. Most of the content in Discover is purely marketing material.

Advertising isn't all that there is in Discovery although it is in the majority. Newspapers have used this feature to make keeping up with current events more appealing for young people as their news stories are produced in a Snapchat-like format.

What are Snapchat's other features?

While this Snapchat app review has concentrated on the communication and safety issues of the app, the app's ability to be creative in regards to the snaps is very impressive. Lenses that use augmented reality can create unique and amusing looks to photographs.

People can create specific graphics to feature on snaps taken in certain places and for certain events. These show that a Snapchat user has attended that event.

There are mini-games that can be played with friends although these often contain video ads or other marketing material. The video ads usually require users to watch the whole thing in order to receive an in-app reward.

A number of other features are integrated into Snapchat from completely separate companies. Of interest to children, these include Shazam for identifying music but also PhotoMath, which could be helpful with Maths work. Both of these are available separately from Snapchat.

You may have heard of Snapcash but this feature is no longer available.

Is Snapchat safe for tweens and teens?

Snapchat's user agreement requires users to be aged 13 years and above. However, Snapchat, like all social media, can expose children to risks and there are limited ways for parents to monitor and control their child's use of it. Some of the reasons why this app cannot be recommended for use by tweens and younger teenagers are described below.

Snapchat can create false security in its users as they set time limits on how long images and messages they send can be kept. This has led to people of all ages sending images that they came to regret transmitting. Users can also receive unwelcome images and messages.

Snapchat wants its users to stay engaged with it so that it can gather data about them. The Snapchat app is carefully designed to encourage its users to open the app frequently which is why such features as Snapstreaks exist. Snapstreaks and the Snapchat score reward frequent use and this can make the use of the app all-consuming. Those involved in Snapstreaks don't want to be the one to end the streak so they keep it going even when other activities and interests might suffer.

For some children, their standing in Snapchat can become a representation of their actual friendships' strength.  Charms, a type of graphical reward, mark aspects of friendships detected in the communications and emojis exist to show who are best friends and who are number 1 best friends based on Snapchat usage. You may feel that this is not a healthy way for children to measure their social relationships.

Snapchat's users will often find themselves being enticed into engaging with brand promotions. These do take the users' age into account but as new users do not have to provide proof of age, it would be quite easy for children to enter incorrect details and be exposed to goods and services for ages above their own.

A further risk to children has been identified in the use of its filters. Some of these are purely for comedic effect but some let children tweak aspects of their physical appearance. This could promote insecurity about how they look. There is some research that suggests obsessional behaviour can emerge in those who measure themselves against an 'idealised' image of themselves that they have created with the Snapchat filters.

How do I monitor Snapchat and use the settings?

Parents cannot easily monitor Snapchat. The short-lived nature of its messages and images and the way that they are restricted to groups and friends means that there is likely to be little evidence of how it has been used over time. There will be little to see, even if parents look directly at the Snapchat app on their child's device.

Some important settings that can help to keep children safe can be activated but also be turned off without seeking parental approval. In particular, parents should explain why it is important to be careful with the settings controlling who can see their child's messages and location.  

What we love about Snapchat

As one of the most downloaded apps in history, Snapchat is clearly doing something right. Creating snaps, adding filters and effects to photos, and the spontaneity of the communication it encourages are fun and enrich the lives of many people.

Snapchat's developers are aware that the platform can be misused, as can any communication app, and they have built in some features that can be genuinely useful for teens to keep their Snapchat experience a pleasant one.

There are resources accessible in Snapchat to help young people who are being bullied. There is also a reporting facility for inappropriate behaviour in the app and clear guidelines available online for staying safe.

The privacy options can control who can send snaps to a user and restrict who can see their own. The settings let users determine whether their location is shared. Parents cannot lock these settings down, however.

What skills does it improve?

To be fair to Snapchat, it does not make any educational claims so the fact that it does not do much to help develop skills or knowledge is not really a flaw in the app.

Users of Snapchat will be practising communication, at least in the form pushed by the Snapchat features, but this is true of any social media app. All people should be aware of the risks and dangers that come with using social media of any type but being exposed to these risks without the maturity or experience to deal with them is not a good way to learn.

Some of the content in Discovery, put out by US and UK-based newspapers, is also useful for young people to keep up with current events but it is not broad nor deep enough to be a recommendation in itself.

How will kids benefit?

Kids will have fun using Snapchat and many will want to download it to their own mobile devices. Staying in touch with friends, adding filters to photos, and being part of a popular social media scene all appeal to kids. 

How will parents benefit?

Snapchat for parents doesn't offer them any clear benefits. It could be argued that it is better for parents to know of their child's Snapchat use and talk to them about it rather than have their child use Snapchat secretly. It is not difficult for most kids, after all, to download the Snapchat app and set up a Snapchat account.

Parents are likely to worry about what is happening on Snapchat - a platform that is very difficult for them to monitor. The only benefit that parents will likely get from allowing kids to download Snapchat and create an account is that it will stop their children from nagging them to be allowed to use the app.

Overall rating of the app

Snapchat is designed for entertainment, not education. It succeeds in its design aims and its many users who use it multiple times per day are a testament to that.  

It is not recommended to try to build an educational experience around Snapchat. Collaboration and communication can be very useful for carrying on learning outside of school but other apps offer means to do this without the risks that Snapchat brings with it.  

If your child wishes to use Snapchat to keep in touch with friends, think carefully about it. Snapchat is not safe for kids who are young and there are good reasons why Snapchat usage might not be not safe for kids who are older. 

Certainly, nobody under the age of 13, Snapchat's own age restriction, should use it, but the closer your child is to this age, the more cautious you should be about allowing its use. Think about your child's personality, maturity, and friendship groups in light of the risks that come with using Snapchat. All social media can result in your child making connections with people who will misuse the service or be deceitful about who they are.

Snapchat is well made and effective at achieving its aims which is to aid communication and keep users engaged with it. It is entertaining but not educational and its use carries with it risks for young people: it is awarded 3 stars and parents are advised to consider carefully how appropriate it is for their children.