Snapchat: Good for Teenagers?

By Adam McLane

Snapchat: Good for teenagers?

A lot of youth workers have been asking me about Snapchat, a mobile picture sharing service that is popular amongst some segments of teenagers.

I know there are some innocent uses out there. I’ve even heard from youth ministry folks who use it to connect with their students and crowd-source ideas. But I also know of some horror stories. Stories of regret and exposure to things their eyes didn’t want to see.


Rather than respond to specific things I like or dislike about the service I think it’s better to respond with a few principles I’ve taught teenagers, parents, and youth workers for years.

  1. Everyone isn’t who you think they are online. Just ask Manti Te’o. Unless you are 100% confident that you know every single one of your Snapchat friends and they know every one of their Snapchat friends, you don’t really know who is seeing the pictures you are sending nor can you predict what you are likely to be sent.
  2. Anonymity, or perceived anonymity, never benefits teenagers. There have been hundreds of studies done about how far humans will go to punish, humiliate, and harm fellow human beings when they perceive they are inflicting harm anonymously. The most famous of which is the Milgram experiment. I’ve seen it time and again: Anonymity among teenagers leads to cyberbullying, pure and simple. When I first looked into Snapchat I thought it was another experiment, like Chatroulette was. And in fact, I’m still not sure if it’s real or if it’s another Stanford experiment… It’s just too obviously set up to gain the trust of teenagers while attracting men looking for porn to be real. It’s not hard for a grown man to pose as a 15 year old female on Snapchat. And if it isn’t hard, you know that’s what’s going on.
  3. There is no such thing as anonymity anywhere online. When I listen to teenagers talk about this service they seem to like the innocence and cuteness of it. It all just kind of goes away. Awesome. Unfortunately, everywhere your device goes online has the ability to be tracked back to you. (Relatively easily) A service can say something is anonymous and they can have intentions of keeping that private. But if a law is broken, say you see a nude picture of an underage friend, all of your usage data is able to be seen by the courts for your prosecution. Ask Kwame Kilpatrick about that. While Snapchat tries to convince users otherwise the proof is right in their privacy policy… they store everything for their own purposes and will give it out however they need to. The privacy policy details how they store your UDID, (device ID) email, phone number, MAC address, (network identifier) and all your usage data… which images you looked at, how long you saw them, if you touched the screen while you looked at it, etc.
  4. Nothing you post online goes away. Ever. Forget the marketing copy, it’s a lie. That’s just not how the internet works. A service can say it isn’t storing images but it is stored, indexed, and potentially sold. Again, the Snapchat privacy policy makes it abundantly clear that they are storing everything and will use it however it best benefits their investors within the law. Think of it like this… if I could convince you to post lots of photos of yourself which I could then use for any purpose I wanted whenever I wanted… why would I ever delete that? I wouldn’t. I’d store it and potentially use it later. And when you’re 25 and you apply for a job that does a background check, guess who is going to be seeing your embarrassing 10 year old photos? Yup, thems the breaks kid. COPPA only protects you until you’re 13. After that you can identify your flirty Snapchat self with the non-flirty MBA self trying to get a government job. Additionally, they are legally obligated to store every-single-image because if a law is broken and they’ve deleted evidence they may be criminally responsible. So they can say they are deleting stuff all they want, but they are storing it all.
  5. Things aren’t always as innocent as they appear online. Snapchat is a service targeted at 13-17 year old females. All of their promotional materials are out of casting central for a Disney Channel-esque television show. Who do you think are the vast majority of users? I’m going to guess men. Snapchat is like bait for a To Catch a Predator episode. When it was first described to me I wondered if Chris Hanson occasionally popped up and said, “Hello there Joe. I’m Chris Hanson from Dateline NBC. Can I ask you what you’re doing here?

I’ve been soft on responding about Snapchat because there hasn’t been a lot of data to back up my assumptions about the site. But I do want to point out that based on all the experience I have in working with digitally connected teenagers, all of the principles that I teach should navigate any and all students away from using this app.

Are there innocent uses? Certainly. Am I being alarmist? That’s not my style. I just don’t see the positive outweighing the negative.

All Snapchat appears to be is a teenage version of Chatroullette. It might be used innocently. But it’ll also lull you into to taking bigger and bigger risks until its too late. There’s just no upside to it. Cute and fun? I am not buying it.

What’s an alternative and why? Instead of Snapchat I’d recommend Instagram, a photo-sharing service with a more open sharing community and a proven abuse desk via Facebook.

My encouragement to students, parents, and youth workers is to help teenagers find a better platform for connecting than Snapchat. Too many unknowns and built too easily for exploitation.


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