Okay, parents, let’s jump right in here because there is a (very) good chance the word Snapchat has already come up in your household conversations. Maybe your child already has it, or maybe they’re begging for it and you’re still staunchly in Camp NO.
Either way, Snapchat, just like TikTok, IG, and whatever new app is coming our way that we haven’t heard of yet, is part of our children’s lives. Even if they don’t have Snapchat, their friends do, the kids on the bus do, and the kids in the lunchroom do.
Snapchat is a form of social currency, a primary mode of communication, and it’s embedded in today’s youth culture in a way that parents cannot avoid, no matter how much they try.
As a mom of three (a teen, a tween, and a 10-year-old), I’m right there with you—trying to keep my kids safe and protect them from the vicious toxicity of the online world, but also realizing that 21st-century kids are digital—for better or worse—and I better get on board and help them navigate it.
So on Snapchat specifically, here’s why your kids love it, why they’re begging for it, and what you, the parents, need to know about one of the most popular social media apps among today’s teens and tweens.
You may also like to read: Here Are The Tech Rules You Need To Be Setting For Your Tweens and Teens
Why do teens love Snapchat so much?
“Snapchat for today’s adolescents is what MTV was for us,” explains Digital Parenting Coach Elizabeth Milovidov, PhD, J.D. “We’d be stuck watching PBS, but what we really wanted to watch was MTV.”
Why? Because it was cooler. And it was embedded into our youth culture—whether we had cable or didn’t. Because even if you didn’t have MTV, you knew a friend who did. And that house was the best hangout house in town, wasn’t it?
That’s Snapchat for today’s youth. Between the endless filters, stickers, and lenses they can add to their images and videos, as well as features like Snap Map, through which they can find their friends’ locations (no more riding around town, hoping to find kids through sheer luck!), and Snap Streaks that many users will maintain for months on end, there’s a lot to love for the young people living smack-dab in the middle of the online world.
Plus, Snapchat content—a.k.a. “Snaps”—disappear quickly after they’re viewed. This feature, although alarming to some parents, is actually a bonus that lots of kids love—and here’s why. Let’s compare Snapchat’s temporary design to a more permanent social media medium, such as the IG grid. As Devorah Heitner, PhD and author of Growing Up in Public points out, young people today are using IG stories far more than their grids, as their ever-changing nature is conducive to a medium that doesn’t hold on to old content.
Dr. Heitner says that IG stories “fit kids’ lifestyles better in a way because they’re changing more, and they don’t necessarily want to look at an old picture of themselves from a year ago when they had a totally different style.” This, in turn, explains why Snapchat—a platform that deletes content even faster—gained popularity so quickly within this age demographic.
Heitner adds another positive spin to the very temporary nature of Snapchat. We all know that social media can be toxic to the mental health of today’s youth, but because nothing is kept very long, many feel that of all the social platforms, this one might end up being healthiest for our kids.
“Some kids say that the ‘appearance pressure’ of Snapchat is reduced, as opposed to the grid posts on IG,” Heitner explains. “Some girls will say they feel ‘appearance pressure’ because you must be ‘good enough’ to make the grid.” But on Snapchat? There is no “grid” to be “good enough for.”
And finally, the fact that content doesn’t last on Snapchat, she continues, reduces pressure on kids. “They’re not just worried about parents surveilling them and getting in trouble. They’re also worried about getting canceled and in trouble with peers,” she explains. So knowing that whatever they send will be gone in a “snap” decreases the stress tweens and teens might feel to always “get it right” when posting to social media. IG might be where they post something for all the world to see, whereas Snapchat is where they can comfortably chat with friends, send silly videos and images, and feel safer just being themselves.
How can parents best navigate their children’s introduction to Snapchat?
First and foremost, we should remember that they are kids—not adults. Adolescents desperately want to assert their independence but also need our guidance and support (even if they don’t want to admit that they do). They want to fit in and participate in whatever the trend is of the day or the week or the month, and, we, as their parents, need to realize how important this is to them.
And—this one’s crucial—we need to give them grace when they mess up (because they will).
Heitner offers the helpful phrase “mentoring over monitoring” to suggest how we can best support and guide our kids through the tricky world of social media. For example, “monitoring is when every message your child sends or receives is sent to your phone, and oftentimes they don’t even know it,”
Mentoring, on the other hand, includes setting up Snapchat with your child (keeping in mind the legal age for SnapChat is 13) and having conversations like who is an appropriate contact, what they should do if they see something inappropriate or upsetting, and what they should do if a stranger contacts them.
These conversations, Heitner says, are particularly important for younger kids on Snapchat, but by ages 15 or 16, parents can usually provide more latitude. But even then, she adds, parents should still regularly check in with their children who are on Snapchat and ask questions like “Who are you in contact with? Do you know all these people?”
Mentoring, rather than monitoring, allows your child to have some agency over their own lives and social media interactions, but also lets them know that you’re there to guide and support them. Just like you were there when they learned to ride a bike, you’re there to help with school work, and you might be now helping them learn to drive a car, it’s vital to a child’s well-being that parents act as mentors to help them learn how to use technology appropriately.
“If you think you need to monitor (not mentor) your kid’s Snapchat, they maybe just say no to Snapchat,” Dr. Heitner says.
How to talk to your kids about their Snapchat use
Licensed psychotherapist and mom of two, Jennifer Bosch, has so far allowed her older child to use Snapchat, but not yet her younger one. And, when she does provide access, Bosch follows the same mentoring model Heitner and Milovidov recommend.
“Initially, I will only allow her to use it when I am sitting next to her, so that she becomes familiar with how to use it and moves through her feelings on it,” Bosch explains. “Also, this helps her feel more comfortable talking to me about all that she is exposed to on there. Then, eventually she’ll be allowed to use it on her own when I feel like she can tolerate it and be safe.”
All three tech experts believe in creating a strong foundation of communication at the onset of sending our kids off into the tricky social media world. This is crucial because we want them to know they can come to us if they need help.
“We need to create a trusting relationship with our kids so that if they do, for example, send a nude and it’s out there, they’ll come to us,” Dr. Heitner explains. “We want our kids to come to us if they’re in a tough situation, even if they made a decision we’re not thrilled about.”
You may also want to read: Sextortion Is a Growing Problem for Teens: Here’s What Parents Need to Know
So what about when we want our kids to take a break? (Because sometimes they need one!) Elizabeth Milovidov, PhD, J.D., founder of Digital Parenting Coach shared a story of how she recently got her child to take a “break” from Snapchat (while also offering up a compromise to her teen). Her example has to do with kids’ dedication to their Snap Streaks—which can last for weeks, months, even years if your child is committed, and basically they just mean that the user responds to messages within the same 24-hour period. If they break their “streak,” they have to start all over.
Dr. Milovidov had asked her kids to take a break from devices during a recent family vacation, but her 13-year-old was getting anxious about breaking his “streak” on Snapchat. “So I allowed him that 3-minute break just so he could keep his streak going, and then he turned it off, not even concerned,” she explains.
The power in giving our kids just that little bit of control, even if we have to compromise a bit—can go a long way, whether our kids are two and we’re letting them choose between the blue or red cup, or they are teenagers wanting to maintain a Snapchat streak with their friends.
In addition, Dr. Milovidov says that Snapchat wants to work with us, the parents. They want our kids on their platform, so they are actively trying to make their app safer and provide a more positive experience for our young people. She recommends checking out parents.snapchat.com to learn about the app, how kids use it, and how parents can best mentor their kids in the digital world.
“Jump in there!” she says. “Snapchat isn’t going away, so get in there, critique it, and get involved to help Snapchat improve the experience for all kids.”
This is bigger than Snapchat—this is parenting in the digital age.
Here’s the truth—like it or not. Snapchat is MTV all over again. Snap culture represents the latest social currency for today’s teens and tweens, and for many kids who are not allowed to have it, it becomes the forbidden fruit. Some adolescents are determined to access it—through any means possible.
For others, they may obey their parents, but they sit next to someone on the bus or at lunch who opens up their phone and starts sending snaps. Or, they’re at a friends’ house, and the kids there are snapping away. The truth is, like anything else our kids are exposed to as they grow up—drugs, alcohol, unsafe people, inappropriate movies and TV shows, foul language, regardless of how thick and strong that bubble is that you think you’ve insulated your children into (and trust me, I get it, I’ve naively put my kids into one too), the minute they walk outside the walls of our homes, we cannot control what they see, hear, feel, or experience.
That’s why experts like Milovidov say that this fight is far bigger than what we allow on our own children’s phones. “No, you can’t completely monitor Snapchat, but you can’t completely monitor anything,” she explains. “Even if you have your daughter’s account locked down and all she can see is pink unicorns and puppies, all she has to do is look at the feed of the kid sitting next to her.”
Dr. Milovidov goes on to explain that as we try to raise kind, empathetic, hard-working kids, we also need to ensure that we are raising “digital people” who have coping strategies to deal with what they might see on their devices and other devices around them. That means that similarly to how we talk to our children about drugs, alcohol, sex, and gun violence, we must talk to them about how to handle online dangers and upsetting social media content as well.
Parenting kids today means far more than “Yes, you can have Snapchat” or “No, you can’t have Snapchat.” It also means understanding that our children are online and are going to see things we don’t want them to see, so it’s up to us to keep the line of communication open and safe so that they will talk to us and so that we can mentor them, not only monitor them, through this ever-changing digital world.
We also recommend Heitner’s new book Growing Up in Public available on Amazon and other booksellers.
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