If your child isn't on Snapchat, he or she probably will be. It's one of the most popular apps for teens and tweens and the fastest growing of all the social networks. Why do they like it? Snapchat basically offers a Mission Impossible messaging system: any photo or video sent over the popular mobile app will self-destruct within a few moments of viewing.
For parents, this can be a relief: it means that whatever crazy thing your kid is up to now won’t live forever on the Internet.
On the other hand, it creates a whole realm of communication for kids that is virtually impossible for parents to monitor.
So how can parents have start good conversations with kids about how to stay safe on Snapchat – and beyond?
At any age, says Donna Rice-Hughes, president and CEO of the internet safety organization Enough is Enough, parents need to help kids understand that the digital world is very much like the real one: it has lots of good places and people—but also bad ones. Problems in the digital world arise, Rice-Hughes says, because we don’t have “healthy boundaries instinctively in the digital world.”
So from elementary age, Rice-Hughes says, parents need to help kids set healthy digital boundaries. Today’s elementary students were born into a world in which “the internet has become an extension of our physical lives.” So one of the most important things to get across to them, says Rice-Hughes, is that “the internet has not always been here. We can live without it.” She encourages parents to encourage kids to unplug regularly, and to begin to use parental controls on all technology from the beginning – so that when kids are older, parental involvement in technology use—like Snapchat—just feels like a part of normal life.
Middle school is the age at which most kids are legally allowed to join services like Snapchat, which has an age limit of 13, along with many other popular apps, like Facebook and Instagram. But on Snapchat, Rice-Hughes points out, that age limit isn’t verified, which means younger kids can easily lie and join. So even before 13, parents need to be diligent about monitoring what apps kids are using. Rice-Hughes suggests that parents approve all apps that children are using, which can be a good time to start conversations about why kids want to use an app and what they plan to do with it – and to investigate security and privacy settings for each app together with kids.
High school students may be less inclined to talk with parents about their own lives. And it’s also important for parents to respect their privacy. So it’s a good age, Rice-Hughes says, for parents to start asking what kids see their friends doing on sites like Snapchat—and what they think about that. Those conversations can help kids form opinions about what they do and don’t want to do—and about what might not be safe. For Snapchat in particular, Rice-Hughes says, it’s important for parents to get the message across that “Nothing’s really private,” especially in a world of screengrabs and reshares. “Anything that is shared can always be reshared.”
It’s also crucial, Rice-Hughes says, for parents to realize they can’t just “have that Internet safety conversation once,” because today’s kids are always online, and always finding new opportunities – for good or ill. So conversations with kids about their digital lives should start early, and continue on a weekly or even daily basis.
And despite the daunting complexity of the digital world, Rice-Hughes’ advice on how to be “a good cyber parent” is simple: “extend all their parenting skills to the online world.”