The Snapchat Generation Gap

May 14, 2013
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, United States
CATEGORIES Common Sense Resources, Digital Citizenship, Digital Literacy, Parents and Families

You may have read about Snapchat by now—the app that allows users to take and send photos to friends that will “self-destruct” in 10 seconds or less. As one may imagine, the ability to send photos that are, for the most part, untraceable has become increasingly popular—especially with teenagers. While many parents are nervous about teens using the app to send photos of a sexual or illicit nature, teens have responded that sexting is not Snapchat’s primary function.

“I don’t even know anybody who uses Snapchat to sext,” reported Sunday Simon of Youth Radio to NPR’s All Things Considered. “An online poll from the Survata Research Network found that of 700 Snapchat users only 13 percent had ever sent what they called photos of a sexual nature. My mom […] knows that's not what I use it for, though, she doesn't really get why I use it at all.”

Sunday Simon’s mother, Delores Thompson, also appeared on the show, and gave her opinion of the app, which shares about 150 user-generated images each day. “If I send somebody a picture, I want them to have the picture,” she explained. “I mean, this is not ‘Mission Impossible,’ when I give you a secret code from the FBI and then it should disappear or go away.” For many parents like Thompson, Snapchat evokes the question: Why send a self-destructing photograph if you aren’t trying to hide something?

The generational gap that Simon hinted at on the show appears to be the crux of the Snapchat debate. Adults don’t get the app’s appeal, and so are nervous that students are using it inappropriately; however, they fail to see Snapchat’s primary purpose because they are so isolated from the social pressures associated with social media sites that often affect teens.

“For a lot of teenagers,” Simon says, “Facebook has become a place where you try to make your life look perfect. Instagram is a popularity contest. That leaves Snapchat,” the perfect place for teens to feel safe enough to be themselves without fearing how a silly photo might affect their pruned social media profiles.

Writing at Forbes, internet safety advocate Larry Magid said Snapchat’s designers aimed to create a service that afforded more privacy than Facebook and other social networks. Increasing concern from parents was likely unavoidable, however, so the Snapchat team published a guide for parents [pdf] to provide “suggestions for how to handle issues and concerns that may arise.”

And as Magid and others reported this week there’s another hidden lesson in the Snapchat debate -- there’s no such thing as online content that disappears forever. A forensics examiner blogged recently that he was able to restore dozens of  ”deleted” Snapchat photos from Android phones.

Whether or not this information is likely to alter Snapchat's allure for teens is debatable. But regardless, aside from addressing parental concerns, it could be argued that the pressure teens face to uphold a certain image on their other social media profiles may be the bigger issue. How can we help resolve the relationship between teens and sites like Facebook so that they no longer feel like they must personify a practiced image of perfection?

Our “Picture Perfect” lesson, designed for elementary school students, begins to delve into these pressures while exposing students to the ubiquity of photoshopped images and how they often reinforce negative stereotypes in media, especially for young women. For high school students, you can take another lesson from our Gender and Digital Life toolkit titled “Feeling on Display,” which dissects how gender affects teens’ reputations and how that can play out on social media. The lesson also features students’ reflections about what they’ve posted online and the reactions they’ve received.

The impermanence of apps like Snapchat might have a certain appeal to teens, but it may not be for the reasons you think. As Magid recommended, try having a conversation first. “Just ask them if they use these apps and what they’re doing with them,” said Magid. “Chances are your kid already knows not to do anything really stupid, but it never hurts to calmly impart a little adult wisdom.”