What exactly is Snapchat?


Almost every time you say the words “Snapchat” to an adult over 40 their eyes glaze over, roll or something like this comes out of their mouth: “Snapchat is the devil!”

Snapchat is to parents what advanced calculus is to kindergartners. It is confusing, meaningless, seemingly impossible and not something they are generally interested in. To me it’s all those things. And just to be clear, so is advanced calculus.

There is this great commercial for Nationwide Insurance where the premise is that people will do various unappealing tasks rather than work on their retirement plans. In one scene, a mother says she’s learning “Snapchamp.” “Snapchat,” the teen sitting on the bed corrects her. That commercial always cracks me up. Not only is it showing the idea of an adult learning Snapchat about as appealing as bathing the cat, but it demonstrates how adults even have a hard time remembering what it’s called.  I’ve heard friends call it Chitchat, Snapshot and more. So why are our teens wasting literal hours a day on this app?

Well, turns out it sucks you in. It’s kind of fun to play with all the filters, slow-motion sound affects and reverse video tricks. You can write text over your photos, add stickers to your photos or dancing stars. And send them off to your best friend just for the fun of it. There are endless amounts of photo edits available. You can distort your face. You can make your voice sound like a mouse or a monster in the video clips. And it all goes away about as fast as can be punched up by your teen.

Therein lies the real appeal of Snapchat. Teens can talk, act a fool, and share 7-second videos that disappear into the universe where parents cannot really monitor them. Therein lies the real reason parents have such disdain for Snapchat. How on earth are we supposed to monitor what our teens are Snapchatting about with 145 of their closest friends on streaks that stretch as long as 677 days?

Larry Magid of safekids.com writes that while there can be nefarious uses for this camera app, it has been found that it is generally used for silliness. Nevertheless, parents should talk to their children about what is appropriate and what is not.

“While it is certainly possible to use Snapchat to send out inappropriate pictures, that’s not the primary use-case for the app,” he writes on his safekids.com website. “I don’t know of any formal studies on how kids and others are using Snapchat, but I do know that lots of people use it for all sorts of images that have nothing to do with sex or nudity.”

According to Snapchat, 166 million users are active on the app every day sending a total of three billion pictures and videos every day. The one user I know best, seems to use it a little more than this average of 18 snaps a day would indicate. One of the reasons for this excessive use of Snapchat is something called a streak. Seems Snapchat users start streaks with other users and must Snapchat each other at least once a day to keep up the streak. My teen keeps up dozens and dozens of streaks and just recently informed me that her longest running streak is 677 days.

OK, so the time has come for me to learn a little more about Snapchat. So, for the purpose of research, my daughter provided me with a tutorial while downloading the app on to my phone. It was hard to keep up with how fast she was navigating through this app but what I learned was it is just another way in which our teens communicate with each other. Where as we used to have to rely on the voice on a phone to tell us how our friends were feeling, or we had to actually go see our friends, they have quick video snippets. They take photos of themselves crying when they are sad and need to reach out to a friend. They take untold amounts of photos making stupid faces, smiles, eye-rolls, exasperated, bored and tired expressions and share them with each other. My daughter said it helps her to make friends and get to know people better.

“It’s hard to describe,” my daughter said when I asked her why she likes Snapchat so much. “It’s just a way to be friends with someone.”

Not only can users share pictures and videos, but you can also text through Snapchat, do live video chats and make voice calls through the app. As a parent, I see the down side to this is taking all that stuff off line so that it cannot be monitored. So, I still think there is room for teens to hide things through Snapchat if they really want to. But at some point, you have to trust your child and try to just keep communication lines open. That is, at least, all I know to do.

Magid says: “My advice for parents is to talk with your kids about Snapchat, Instagram and other photo-sharing apps. Don’t lecture them, don’t panic and don’t expect the worst. Just ask them if they use these apps and what they’re doing with them. Chances are your kid already knows not to do anything really stupid, but it never hurts to calmly impart a little adult wisdom.”

You can read more about online safety tips for teens at http://www.safekids.com/. You can also download a guide for parents here: http://www.connectsafely.org/wp-content/uploads/snapchat_guide.pdf.

For the record though, I now have Snapchat downloaded on my phone. I sent two friends snaps while I was doing my tutorial with my daughter, but they have not Snapchatted me back. They were probably already asleep. I did enjoy playing with the filters, though.

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