My daughter is six years old. She loves Snapchat. She's been using the app for the past two years, and it is her favorite way to communicate with her aunts, uncles, grandparents (and sometimes her parents). I never would have thought this was going to be such a good learning experience when my wife and I set up a shared account with her to Snapchat with her family, but it's turned out to be one of the smartest decisions we've made as parents.
Chances are you have one of two reactions right now:
- What the heck is Snapchat?
- Why would you ever let your young daughter use an app designed for selfies and bad pictures?!?!
I'm going to break down why we let our daughter use Snapchat (and the benefits thereof), but first let me give you a brief overview of the app.
Snapchat is a video messaging application created by Evan Spiegel, Bobby Murphy, and Reggie Brown when they were students at Stanford University. Using the application, users can take photos, record videos, add text and drawings, and send them to a controlled list of recipients. These sent photographs and videos are known as "Snaps". Users set a time limit for how long recipients can view their Snaps (1 to 10 seconds), after which Snapchat claims the Snaps will be deleted from the company's servers.
Users can compile snaps into a "story" that can be viewed by other users in chronological order, with each snap available for 24 hours after its posting. Alongside users' stories, Snapchat also features curated "live stories", with content from various users focusing on a specific theme or event, as well as channels of short-form content from major publishers. Generally we don’t allow our daughter to post stories, however, sometimes when she asks to post a picture (like when she got her ears pierced) we give her permission to post the story.
On the Snapchat blog, the founders have shared three beliefs that drive their growth of the product:
“We believe in sharing authentic moments with friends. It’s not all about fancy vacations, sushi dinners, or beautiful sunsets. Sometimes it’s an inside joke, a silly face, or greetings from a pet fish.
“Sharing those moments should be fun. Communication is more entertaining when it’s with the people who know us best. And we know that no one is better at making us laugh than our friends.
“There is value in the ephemeral. Great conversations are magical. That’s because they are shared, enjoyed, but not saved.”
In short, Snapchat is different from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram because it is not built on likes or content that drives traffic to another website (although that is changing a bit). It is built on sharing moments and live events. It’s very relational and not as spammy or focused on selling/marketing/advertising. This is not only beneficial for the Snapchat power users, but also those just getting started because it focuses on one-on-one connection.
Snapchat is the perfect social experience for kids.
The app has been set up on our family iPad—monitored by my wife and me—and my daughter is only "friends" with family that she knows. Any piece of technology isn’t perfect, but our goal is to allow her to participate in digital communication for the right reasons. What we've seen is that Snapchat is the perfect environment to accustom her to using, navigating, and behaving in a social platform. Here are just a few of the reasons why it's a positive social learning experience for kids:
- Snapchat makes it easy to have a shared account, so the Snapchat account on my iPhone can be linked to the account my daughter uses on our family iPad.
- Snapchat is incredibly simple to use. Take a picture, selfie, or video and then click who you are going to send it to. That's it. When you receive a picture or video you click and hold down to watch it. That's it. No commenting, likes or shares take place, so there isn’t social peer pressure of how “well” the picture is being received (or not being received).
- Snapchat is fun. The filters are goofy and hilarious. It makes it fun for my daughter to share a picture with a mustache or a gatorade cooler (for the Super Bowl) dumped on her head. It also shows her that these filters aren't real and that anything online can be changed to look different (an important lesson). As we move into more and more of a virtual world, my daughter is part of a generation that will have to discern between real and not-real often as a daily part of their lives.
Snapchat is also a great app for teachable moments with your kids. A few months back, our daughter had the iPad and was snapping some video of her brother acting goofy. It was harmless until she made a comment that was making fun of him and put him down. When we got the Snap on our phones it was the right time to sit down and talk about how she was treating her brother and what that would feel like if she was the one who was being made fun of in a video.
We often talk about "empathy" as teachers and parents. This situation was a quick reminder that we can build empathy through social interactions online and in person. We talked about the ramifications of this type of online action where it there could be way more than just her family who could potentially see the video. It could have been the moment we got rid of Snapchat, but it turned into a great lesson for all of us—parents included—to go through together.
There are some places on the app that I don't think are necessarily fit for a young kid. We don't want our daughter to check out some of the live stories (think Summer Concert series) or even the discover feature (to find other people's stories). These boundaries have been set, and that’s why she can only use the app with parental oversight.
But this is the Snapchat generation. Our kids are growing up in an on-demand world where they can have access to information and media at all times, share whatever is on their mind at any moment, and socialize in a digital space with anyone from around the world.
If we don't allow our kids to use apps and platforms in a safe setting, make time for teachable moments, and support their learning and growth as online citizens, then it's going to be tough to have these conversations as they get older. We are hoping that the chats we have now with our daughter will help later on when something new has come along and we don't have as much oversight as we do now.
Will it help? No one knows. But we are one set of parents giving it a try. If you want to learn more, check out the Complete Guide to Snapchat for Teachers and Parents.
A.J. Julian (@ajjuliani) is a dad of four kids, the author of “Inquiry & Innovation in the Classroom” and an innovation specialist in a public school district just outside of Philadelphia, PA.