What is Snapchat?
Snapchat is a photo-sharing app with a twist: the images you send disappear seconds after they're viewed – you get to decide how long a photo will 'live,' from one to 10 seconds after it's been seen. It feels like a way to socialise without leaving a digital footprint. But there are ways to capture and recover images so it's unwise to have too much of a sense of security about that.
Snapchat runs on the Apple iPhone and Android phones but it also runs on iPad, Android tablets and iPod Touch, which are often used by very young children.
Why do young people like it?
Snapchat was developed as an antidote to other social networking services, where images can stay around forever and people have to worry about self-presentation and reputation. Snapchat users feel they don’t have to worry if they’re having a bad hair day or just want to make a silly face. It's been (rightly) drummed into young people that photos shared on the web are forever and really hard to take back. Snapchat's a relief: it's playful and in the moment. Users don't have to worry about some invisible future audience.
Does Snapchat have a minimum age?
Yes, it's 13, in compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. But Snapchat doesn’t ask users to specify their ages so there are probably many younger children using the app. The service will delete underage accounts if they’re notified and can verify that the user is under 13.
Are there risks in using Snapchat?
There's nothing inherently dangerous about Snapchat, but it's often referred to as 'the sexting app' - even though there's no research showing that to be true and plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that isn't the reason most teens use it. But like any photo-sharing service, Snapchat can be used for sexting, harassment, or worse. It can be particularly sad and hurtful if that happens, because Snapchat is typically used among friends (or at least people who have each other's user name or phone numbers).
Is it good that Snapchat photos disappear in seconds?
Yes, because photos aren't put on display, young people don't have to develop a following. They aren't on display, they don't have to feel performance anxiety. The ephemeral aspect actually adds a measure of safety, as long as people don't develop a false sense of security. Photos can also be saved as screenshots or photographed with another phone and shared with or without the originator's knowledge, which can be good or bad - bad because a screen-captured photo can be used to embarrass the people in it; good because if things do go wrong, there is evidence against someone trying to hurt others.
What's the best way to help kids stay safe in Snapchat?
As with all social media, respecting ourselves and others – in and out of technology and media – makes us safer. Whether the experience is positive or negative depends entirely on how people use the app or service. Are they really friends? How do they treat each other, offline and online? Friends may kid around with each other but for the most part treat each other well. Use this guide for talking points, but the most important thing is that they know you'll support them when difficult things happen – that they can always come to you no matter what.
*Update October 2016: Since this article was published Snapchat has added the facility for users to choose how long their snaps stay up on the app. Other new features include creating and sharing stories, video and audio calls. To find out more about staying safe on Snapchat, click here.