The snapchat streaker – clothes on or off?

At what point do we decide it is okay to video school Principal Steve Warner, dragging a student across the playground and posting it online?

A mother of a teenage boy approaches me and asks about ‘streaking’. A wry smile breaks out across my face as we clarify the context of the term. No, she is not talking about her son taking off his clothes and making a dash in full public view of his peers. She wants to discuss his persistent lobbying to setup a social media account on Snapchat so he can ‘streak’ with his friends.

Streaking (also known as a snap streak) is when ‘two people have sent a photo/video to each other (but not chatted) within 24 hours for more than three consecutive days’ and is represented by the 🔥 emoji. If you are thinking how meaningless this is, there is even a record for the longest streak.

A streak to adults is a number which has little meaning, however through the eyes of a teen seeking ongoing approval from their peers it represents much more.

The essence of our being is to connect with others emotionally. Feelings of validation, approval and vulnerability are a part of this process and at no time is this greater than in our teenage years.

Exploiting the need for approval and keeping teens online for as long as possible is integral to the design of Snapchat (and many other social media apps). Games, points and rewards are all part of the process to motivate and maintain participation. Snapchat’s streaking feature does this perfectly. As Design Ethicist Tristan Harris describes, it manipulates ‘our psychological vulnerabilities’ and he exposes ‘where does technology exploit our minds’ weaknesses?’ with particular reference to teenagers.

Is this enough for a parent to say ‘no’ to their teen having Snapchat?

With 4 million users currently, in Australia alone, clearly not.

Social media has many shortcomings, and the reminders come daily. Parents need to learn a little themselves of the risks, of the impact of peer pressure, how their teen wishes to use Snapchat, then outline what are the expectations for use and the consequences of going outside those boundaries.

Advice for the mother in question – and for any other responsible adult in a similar situation – is to have a conversation.

Reaffirm your values and principles of what makes for rewarding friendship. The basis of a beautiful friendship is not in the raw numbers of Likes, Streaks or Shares. It is in sharing a common interest, an experience, laughter, loyalty, trust and much more. These values apply online and face-to-face, and we should be wary of reducing them to a number.

Discuss why they wish to use the app. Probe to identify what their peers do with the app and why it is now the app of choice amongst his or her peers. And remember it is not about the streaks.

Do some basic research on the functionality of the social media app to identify the risks. Snapchat can move video, audio, photos, text and be used to make calls. Teens love that ‘snaps’ disappear after ten seconds and they are notified if a screenshot has been taken by those receiving the message. Location services are in many apps to help users identify the location of others. Friends can be located on Snap Map if the location function is on. Like all apps which send and receive video, audio, photos and text, Snapchat can be used for sexting and other inappropriate content.

Discuss what you believe is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Topics can include sexting, violence, pornography, bullying, etc.

Stipulate the security settings. This simple act can promote the safe and responsible use of the app. If you are unsure, conduct a search using the term ‘safe settings on Snapchat’ (or any other app in question).

Reaffirm who your teens can trust and go to when something goes wrong online.

Like any technology, social media apps present us with challenging and complex situations, yet this should not be an excuse for us to abandon these playful and powerful tools. Use them, learn about them with your teen, as they present an opportunity to explore together and further strengthen your own communications, face-to-face.