In my work with teens, parents often ask me about how to navigate the ever-changing and sometimes scary world of teen social media. Perhaps the most worrisome social media app for many parents is the popular app SnapChat, which allows users to send photos to one another that disappear within 10 seconds. The concept is similar to other image based media, like Instagram, providing filters and captions, and even a personal page where you can find a collection of someone’s “stories” (short videos comprised of both photos and videos from the user’s day). But what most sets SnapChat apart is its user-to-user interface, where the bulk of the interactions happen. This feature allows users to send specific photos to only one person, or a group of people, rather than posting it for all followers to see. Along with the photos, users can create a captions or send texts, in essence facilitating a texting conversation via images, but without leaving a trace.
This user to user interface is typically where the conversations between teens and parents goes awry. Parents often think of the many dangers that can come with individual photo sharing, particularly problems around explicit photos and sexting, the exact purpose for which the app was initially designed. This concern is hugely important, as now teens can be charged as sex offenders for distributing child pornography of nude photos of their peers. This concern cannot be overstated -- in the new teen landscape where sexting is normal, it is imperative that you talk with your teens about the consequences to their choices on social media! Teenagers, while aware of some of these perils, are more focused on the social benefits of being on the app. For many students, SnapChat provides the direct communication of texting or AOL Instant Messaging of generations past. In the teenage world, not having a SnapChat is like cutting off the social lifeline, in teenage speak -- “it’s social suicide.” SnapChatting is the new texting, the platform for small talk, the way weekend plans are made, and the medium through which friends reach out when they've had a hard day.
Today, SnapChat is the hot topic, but I’m sure 6 months from now there will be a new social media app hitting the scene. No matter the platform, my recommendation to parents is to work with your teenager to find a win-win solution for the family. It is the parents’ job to create boundaries in which the student can freely and safely engage and explore the digital realm. When engaged safely, it can provide a place where the teen can practice social interactions, conversation skills, and develop their identity that may be transferred to face to face skills. It is often helpful for parents and children to have agreements around boundaries such as the parents holding all passwords for new downloads, access to all social media apps, agreement to set accounts as private rather than public, turning in devices after 9pm, etc. Boundaries work best when they change with the child, allowing more freedom as the child ages and gets closer to launching from the home.
One day, your child will have to navigate the bumpy terrain of internet and relational ethics on their own, so use this time with them at home to train them well. When they fail, use it as a chance to learn and grow together!