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A parents' guide to Snapchat: What parents need to know to keep children safe

For many teens, Snapchat is appealing because the snaps disappear. But that's not always the case.
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/ Source: TODAY

In February, Dr. Laura Berman shared that her 16-year-old son, Sam, died of a drug overdose after “a drug dealer connected with him on Snapchat and gave him fentinyl (sic) laced Xanax.” Some parents felt stunned by the ease in which the drug dealer targeted Sam on Snapchat.

As parents continue to be curious about what Snapchat is and how it is used, TODAY spoke with experts about what parents need to know about the social media app and how to help their teens navigate it.

What is Snapchat?

Snapchat is a social media app that allows people to send messages, aka snaps, which can include videos or photos. People can share snaps more publicly in a story or to private, personally selected contacts. While it works somewhat like texting or Facebook Messenger, snaps disappear immediately after viewing.

Helping children navigate social media can be tough, but that’s why experts agree that parents should closely supervise teens when they first start.

“This is our chance to talk to them about what’s great about social media, what’s challenging about it, what’s poisonous about it and get them to see social media in a more nuanced way,” Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a parenting expert, told TODAY Parents. “Some teens are savvier about social media than adults are.”

1. Be clear about who teens can talk to

Parents should talk to their children about whom they are speaking to on social media.

“This is one of those things that parents should consider — is your child ready to handle ‘sliding into their DMs,’” Dr. Candice Jones, an Orlando, Florida-based pediatrician, told TODAY Parents. “People can portray themselves as someone they’re not.”

While Jones says most teens use Snapchat with their friends, the app makes it easier for them to chat with people they don’t know. Teens need to understand that some unsolicited messages might come from untrustworthy people.

“They may not be someone your age. They may be a predator grooming you,” she said. “We definitely need to tell our kids that you only talk to people you know. So a friend at school that you told me you guys want to follow each other or family (that's OK). Don’t accept requests from random people.”

2. Decide if your child is ready

Most apps require people to be 13 to use them and Snapchat has that restriction, too. Experts agree that parents shouldn’t allow children younger than 13 to use any apps. But parents know their children best. If a 15-year-old still struggles to follow rules, for example, parents might not want them to use social media yet.

“It is your decision as a parent to decide if your child is ready or not and don’t feel bad if your child isn’t,” Jones said. “There’s no cut and dry age because we know that kids have varying degrees of maturity.”

3. Keep ‘the ‘training wheels on’ at first

“You want to use the first couple of years of your child being on social media to really have the training wheels on and make sure they are really good with their skills,” Gilboa said. “Then you have to have a plan towards their adulthood where they will be on social media without any input from you. It’s not a 1, 2, 3 go. It’s a slow launch.”

4. Help them understand their ‘digital footprint’

For many, Snapchat's appealing because the snaps disappear. While some children understand that people can screenshot images or share snaps beyond what was intended, some will not. Snapchat notifies people if their story has been recorded, but there are ways to bypass that feature so the user is never aware there's a copy floating around.

“There’s a digital footprint. What you put out there never goes away and you don’t want that to follow you,” Jones said. “Even though you thought you deleted it, there could be a screen shot or it can come up later because it doesn’t go away.”

Pointing to a famous example could also help children understand how one social media post can impact them for years.

“Frequently, we’ll have a story of a celebrity who puts something up and then deletes it,” Dr. Petros Levounis, professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, told TODAY Parents. “Whatever that celebrity put up for that half hour, that gets in the public domain. Everybody can see that despite the fact the celebrity took it down.”

When such examples come up, that’s a perfect time for parents to chat about consequences of posts.

5. Focus on the benefits

While it’s easy to get caught up in how social media is bad, there are some positives. Social media makes it easier to talk to friends and family members, which felt extra important during the pandemic.

“One of the major disappointments that we have in our lives is that we are not staying in as much touch with our loved ones as we would like. But for friends and family, social media is a wonderful way of saying, ‘Hey, I liked what you said here.’ Or ‘Here’s where I am in life right now,’” Levounis said. “It does improve connectivity."