For years, parents have vocalized their concerns about Snapchat, a photo and video sharing app popular among teens that allows users to exchange private messages with friends and followers. And we get it! Snapchat is a notorious breeding ground for some of our biggest digital safety concerns at Raise, including online predators, inappropriate content, and cyberbullying.
That’s why we were excited to hear that Snapchat has announced new safety features designed to give parents more insight into the way their children are using the app. Read on for more information about these upcoming changes, and why we believe caution is still warranted.
Through a new in-app feature called Family Center, parents will be able to see which Snapchat friends have sent their children messages, photos or videos within the last week, though they won’t be able to see the content of those messages. Parents will also have the ability to report any suspicious or concerning accounts to Snapchat’s trust and safety team.
Introduction of the Family Center is part of Snapchat's effort to make its app safer for teens.
“Family Center is designed to reflect the way that parents engage with their teens in the real world, where parents usually know who their teens are friends with and when they are hanging out — but don't eavesdrop on their private conversations,” Snapchat said in its announcement. “Our goal is to help empower parents and teens in a way that still protects a teenager's autonomy and privacy."
The Family Center is expected to launch in Fall 2022. In order to use the feature, parents will have to have Snapchat installed on their own devices and link to their child’s account via voluntary opt-in.
Snapchat already has some protections in place for teens. Users under 18 must be mutual friends with other users in order to exchange messages. Teen profiles also have a default private setting, which means they typically appear as “Suggested Friends” to other users only when they already have a friend in common.
Despite these features, Snapchat has been considered a threat to the digital safety of youth. Many law enforcement experts have warned that the app is frequently utilized by online predators. Additionally, numerous teens and parents have reported cyberbullying in connection with the app.
Snapchat hopes that the Family Center will help with some of those issues.
"Today, Snapchat is a central communications tool for young people, and as our community continues to grow, we know parents and caregivers want additional ways to help keep their teens safe," the Snapchat team said.
There are further safety concerns that the new Family Center feature will not address.
Parents will only be able to see who their children have been messaging in the last 7 days. They cannot block their teens from sending private photos or messages. They also can’t see the content of those messages, and unlike Apple’s iMessage, they will not be alerted if the messages contain sexually-explicit material.
The Family Center will not allow parents to limit screen time in the app, either. Apple and Android parental controls can be used to set limits at the device level, but Snapchat doesn’t allow for customization at the app level, unlike other popular apps such as TikTok.
Additionally, these changes do nothing to address content that teens might be exposed to through the Discover and Spotlight features of the app. These pages are designed to show users public content that might be interesting to them, which may be inappropriate for some teens. However, controls for Spotlight and Discover pages may be coming in the future.
“While we closely moderate and curate both our content and entertainment platforms and don’t allow unvetted content to reach a large audience on Snapchat, we know each family has different views on what content is appropriate for their teens and want to give them the option to make those personal decisions,” Snapchat said.
We’re happy to see that Snapchat is taking action to protect younger users on its app. However, we believe that parents should still be cautious when it comes to Snapchat.
A quick Google search of Snapchat and online predators will show that the app features prominently in many cases where predators target youth online. The problems are well-documented and ongoing. Snapchat is also currently the subject of a class-action lawsuit claiming that the app’s designers have done “almost nothing” to protect users against sexual exploitation.
While the Family Center feature is a positive addition, we don’t feel it does enough to adequately address the safety concerns for young users.
It’s important to be aware that the existing safety features in the app and the new Family Center will only protect users ages 13-18, and not those older or younger. Even though children younger than 13 are not technically allowed on Snapchat, the app does not verify the birthdate provided at signup, and many younger children are active users. Parents should talk openly and honestly with their children about engaging with any type of social media or messaging app before the age of 13.
It is possible for teens to use Snapchat safely. At its core, it’s a messaging app that easily lets users communicate and share experiences with friends. When privacy protections are utilized and kids are only contacting people they know in real life, Snapchat can be an engaging messaging platform.
However, due to the breadth of safety concerns surrounding Snapchat, including the risks inherent in having messages disappear without any reviewable record, the Raise team still advises parents to use caution where Snapchat is concerned.
The most important thing parents can do to protect their kids on Snapchat, or any other app, is to keep healthy, honest lines of communication. Your relationship with your child is the best defense against the dangers of the digital world.
For more information about Snapchat, and other common apps regularly used by kids and teens, check out the Raise App Guide for Parents.