What Parents Need To Know About Snapchat To Stay Relevant And Keep Kids Safe

It's not all unicorns and rainbow puke.

by Seth Simons
snapchat spot still

You’ve heard about this Snapchat, but have zero idea what the hell it is. Oh, you know the word “snap.” That’s the sound your old Pentax made. And “chat,” is an informal conversation. Put them together — it’s talking shop about cameras, right? Actually, it’s a company worth about $20 billion that makes an app that dominates your kids’ lives. But since you don’t have time to investigate every new technology, here’s all you need to know about the service to stay relevant — and make sure your kids stay safe.

What Are My Kids Doing On It?

Snapchat lets you share images, videos, and messages with whomever — whether it’s a single person or everyone who’s added you as a friend. So your kids are pretty much doing the same thing they’re doing on every other social media platform: inviting others to catch a glimpse of their day-to-day life, communicating with friends, checking out celebrity posts, and simply wasting time by endlessly scrolling through popular channels. Keep in mind that Snapchat is only for those 18 or older. People age 13 and up are allowed on the app but only with adult consent.

What’s The Big Appeal?

Unlike Facebook, Snapchat leaves no digital footprint (hence the smiling ghost mascot). That, along with the whacky filters and various ways in which conversations take place, is the app’s biggest appeal. All messages sent on Snapchat disappear after about 10 seconds; “stories,” or a sequence of video snaps strung into a longer, chronological narrative, stay up for 24 hours.

Do Messages Really Disappear?

Well, no. Since Snapchat’s inception, multiple data security specialists revealed that there are ways to find messages the app “deletes”. Of course, someone can take a screenshot of a snap, to keep for posterity or to use a blackmail. This used to be a problem, but Snapchat now sends an alert to a user to let them know that someone has done this.

Oh, and according to the Snapchat Law Enforcement Guide, the company “keeps a record of a person’s last 200 snaps that have been sent and received (similar to a phone record).” The company claims they will only be shared with the proper authorities if necessary. Although secure data has never leaked, ever, anywhere in the wor … oh wait.

What Are The Kids Up To?

Probably “lenses.” Since Snapchat is an early form of augmented reality, it allows you to overlay virtual content onto real world picture, thus augmenting it. (Still confused? See 1988s Who Framed Roger Rabbit.) “Lenses” are the goofy images users overlay onto their faces. You can give yourself huge cartoonish eyes, make it seem as though you’re vomiting rainbows, or see what you look like even older than you are (there’s a full list of lenses here). It’s the stuff of nightmares.

How Can I Monitor My Kid’s Use?

The”My Friends” setting allows users to send a receive messages only from people on their friend list. All kids should have this enabled, as it prevents strangers from sending them spam, sexts, and other inappropriate nonsense. Of course, you should make sure they have strong passwords and understand what happens when they send inappropriate pictures, cyber-bully, or just engage in general troll-like behavior.

There’s a diluted version of Snapchat for kids called, appropriately, Snapkidz. It lets younger children create and save snaps — but that’s it. It’s basically Snapchat without the Internet connection, so all they can do is apply filters or lenses to photos and videos. Which sounds ideal.

A Snap Vocab Lesson

As with any social media, Snapchat has spawned its own language. Here are 3 terms you know, but have a different meaning coming out of your kid’s mouth.

  • Snap, Snapped: This is, simply, a photo, video, or message you send to a friend. It’s used as both a noun (“I sent Steve a snap”) or verb (“I snapped Steve a picture of Clark at PF Chang’s.”)
  • Screenshot, Screenshotted, Screenshotting: The act of taking a screenshot of a snap for to save it, making the impermanent, permanent. (“Hey man, did you screenshot that picture of me with PF Changs orange chicken sauce all over my face?”) This often is done as a dig or betrayal. Snapchat sends alerts about screenshotted snaps.
  • Filter: A catchall term used to talk about both filters and lenses. (“Who added that vomit filter to that snap of Clark? It looks like he’s puking a PF Chang’s rainbow.”)

Any Other Precautions?

If you really are concerned, you can install a software monitoring service such as Pumpic. It lets you spy on family phone activity from your own computer. Creepy? Certainly. It’s up to your level of trust with between you and your kid — but if you want to feel more ethical, tell them you’ll have to obtain a court-ordered search warrant first.