Snapchat Society

*This is an article I wrote a while ago for Christian Renewal.


SnapChat is a relatively new software application (app) for smartphones that allows people to send and receive photos and text messages.  Unlike other applications with a similar function, Snapchat erases the communication between two people after ten seconds or less.

While many pictures and texts are innocent, there are a large number of obscene pictures being shared between individuals with a newfound confidence that their digital fingerprints are being wiped clean by Snapchat and for this reason, it has been dubbed the “sexting app.”   This will undoubtedly be an area of concern for parents wishing to keep tabs on their children’s online habits.   It is important to situate Snapchat within the context of an app-crazy culture, before fully weighing in on its place in our culture.

Shiny “App-y” People

app_2There was a time, not too long ago, when buying apps meant ordering over-priced finger foods before the entrée.  Today, however, app is understood as a software “application” downloaded to a mobile device that performs various functions.  For example, there are apps for productivity, navigation, entertainment, sports, news, or shopping.  The market is certainly booming  flooded with over 800, 000 apps available in Apple and Google’s online stores alone.


Yet, the appeal of most apps is fleeting.  For every game you download, there is a new, more entertaining alternative released weeks later.  A recent study indicates that over 80 percent of apps are deleted within three days of being downloaded.  This revolving door of popularity indicates that we should pause to consider any app that manages to sustain the attention of millions for an extended period of time, and ask ourselves, why?

Why Snapchat?  Facebook < Instagram < Snapchat

So why Snapchat?  Are there not already photo-sharing and texting apps available?  Certainly.  Snapchat is not emerging out of a vacuum, but is, arguably, the next step in the evolution of similar apps that are all competing for our attention.

For instance, the most popular app in photo sharing and editing is Instagram.  This free application allows users to digitally enhance smartphone photos before sharing them with others in their social network.  In three years it amassed 90 million monthly active users, who share 40 million photos every day.  Facebook bought the service in 2012, presumably to ensure that these photos would be shared on its social networking platform, and no doubt, contribute data to its expanding digital repository.


Interestingly, this buy out was met with a backlash from Instagram users.  First, many were concerned that their photos, now the property of Facebook, could be subject to Facebook’s ever-changing privacy settings.  (Remember in a past column I mentioned that Facebook, in order to be profitable, must share user generated data with corporations.)  Second, Instagram users loved that their photos were not a part of this corporate mainstream.  Essentially, Facebook, which once “wanted revolution,” is “now the institution” (to steal the lyrics from a great Ben Folds song).

And teenagers, no different in any generation, are resisting the Digital Establishment.  In a report to investors in February, a Facebook representative stated: “We believe that some of our users, particularly our younger users, are aware of and actively engaging with other products and services similar to, or as a substitute for, Facebook.”  Perhaps they are resisting Facebook because it is an establishment that uses our digital fingerprints to generate a large profit.

But more likely, they are resisting Facebook because it is a space where existence requires a lot of work.  For teens (and others), creating and managing an online identity is time consuming, but a necessary component of participation with the social network, given the reality that pictures on the Internet are permanently in circulation.  Teens do not enjoy the surveillance of their parents, and with their parents increasingly on Facebook, connected to their stream of Instagram photos, they are starting to put two and two together.  Enter Snapchat.

Pros of a Snapchat Society

Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy started Snapchat as Standford University students.  Despite reservations from friends about a service that offered to erase photographs and text messages within 10 seconds of posting, the two launched the app in September of 2011.  Now over 150 million photos are taken, shared, and erased on a daily basis.  The majority of Snapchat users are individuals between 13 and 25 years of age.  According to their website, there are a few rules to Snapchat.

  1. Snapchat is not for children under 13.  Children under 13 are prohibited from using Snapchat, but parents should know that Snapchat does not ask for age during signup.  Rather, the onus is on parents and others to report on underage users.
  2. To send a message to someone on Snapchat you need to know their user name and add them to a “My Friends” list.
  3. If someone knows your username or phone number they can send a Snapchat to you, but you can adjust your privacy settings to ensure that messages come only from the “My Friends” list.
  4. You are able to block users in the “My Friends” list.
  5. You can determine if your message will be erased anywhere from 1 to 10 seconds after being opened by the recipient.

Additionally, Spiegel and Murphy encourage parents to talk to their children about Snapchat and explain how they offer an alternative experience to Facebook:

On traditional social networks, users tend to feel pressure to curate the perfect representation of their lives for their friends, coworkers, and relatives.  It’s normal to worry about what people in your network might think about the things that you post.  Sometimes this means that we say things that we think people will like, rather than expressing who we really are.  Snapchat creates a place to be funny, honest or however else you might feel when you take and share a snap with family and friends.  It’s sharing that lives in the moment, and stays in the moment.

I appreciate the truth in this statement.  In an age obsessed with the documentation of every passing moment, perhaps this is a breath of fresh air, returning us back to the ephemeral nature of communication.  However, there are a few caveats to consider when talking to your children about Snapchat.

Snapchat Caveat

First, parents should take note that “Nothing ever goes away on the Internet.”   The founders of Snapchat admit this truth and admit that there are loopholes in the software itself.  Although their company cannot store or see user-generated content (i.e. photos), they cannot stop recipients from taking a “screen shot” of any image on their smartphone.  There can be no guarantee a Snapchat image has been erased before being stored on another phone, and subsequently shared elsewhere.

Second, parents will probably understand that the lure of erasing digital fingerprints may embolden children to act in a manner that assumes ramifications will be either non-existent or minimal.  In fact, many do use Snapchat to share sexually explicit images with one another, which has led some critics to dub it the “sexting” app.  Of course, Snapchat does not create “sexters” but it certainly offers a platform of secrecy where our fallen nature can gratify its appetite.

So parents, knowing what Snapchat is and where it is coming from, I encourage you to have an honest discussion with your child about the pros and cons of using such a service, keeping in mind the words of Paul to the Romans.

Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.

Romans 13:13-14

Related Reading:

Why you should delete Snapchat” – Adam McLane

Social Shifting: Why are Students Leaving Facebook” – Christopher Hutton


2 thoughts on “Snapchat Society

  1. Oh, good grief. As I began reading this I thought, “What’s the point in a service that deletes the message after ten seconds?” Then I read the next line. Sigh.

    The technology of the information age is amazing. But, there seems to be no end to the number of stupid ways we can use it, whether it’s by “liking” pictures of kittens on facebook (as the iDiots film you posted earlier illustrated) or by “sexting.”

    • Thanks for reading Bill. I agree that there is no end to the stupid ways we can use digital technology. But I think that is true of all technologies. That is why I do not like to call any app or new product “good” or “bad,” but hope to use this blog as a platform to discuss what types of behaviour our devices are making possible and less possible (or even, impossible). This seems to me the way that Christians need to be walking alongside their children.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s