What's the deal with Snapchat?

My 15-year-old son, like most modern American teenagers, spends a good deal of time on his phone. 

It’s easy to be one of two things as a parent: I can be tired of keeping up — and just forget trying to understand what Snapchat is — or I can try to keep up. 

I admit I’ve done a little of both. 

The first option is much easier.

You need what?

It’s hard for me to understand why he “needs” any given app. I’ve gone most of my life without them. I’m perfectly fine in my world of sending emails and updating Facebook periodically. 

I don’t mind the “wait” of either one. In fact, I find it a bit charming.

The world is moving fast. And I don’t like fast, generally speaking; I like taking my time. 

But I want to keep up with my kids and understand them. I don’t want my slowness to be interpreted as not caring or not communicating just because the world is moving, for them, at a different pace. 

While I did (begrudgingly) give in to using Snapchat a few months ago, I didn’t understand why it was necessary when I could just send texts. 

I decided to ask him to teach me why. “Why do you like it? Why is it better? Would you recommend I let your 12-year-old sister have it?”

I asked him to name the mobile apps he most commonly uses and to give me a brief description of how he uses them. 

Keep in mind, this is from the perspective of a 15-year-old boy; it isn’t an analyst’s perspective, so please take it for what it’s worth. Maybe it will just give you enough info to start a conversation with your own teen. 

Snapchat 

According to my son, this is the end-all-be-all app for teens. “Snaps” can be photos, videos or texts. The app also allows live video chatting.

My son says the app is a creative way to send fun messages to friends. For him, it usually involves a selfie and bubble statement of some kind that he writes directly on the photo. 

Note: Common Sense Media recommends the app for ages 16 and older. 

You can choose one friend or several and determine the amount of time — 1 to 10 seconds — until each Snap disappears. Though Snapchat gained notoriety as the first disappearing-selfie app (including inappropriate selfies), the app has moved beyond that and now even allows users to post “stories,” which can be viewed repeatedly for 24 hours (at which point they disappear). 

Stories are collections of photos and short videos that users — including many mainstream media outlets such as CNN — publish to the app. 

Snapchat’s ephemeral nature encourages users to check in compulsively or miss their friends’ (or the world’s) stories. See What's the point of Snapchat, and how does it work? and An Adult's Guide to Snapchat to learn more. 

Instagram

My son’s followers on this photo- and video-sharing app aren’t just close friends. It’s a broader community — and sounds a bit like a kid-friendly version of Facebook. But it’s much more image-driven and it’s free of what he calls “the cheesy highlights of how I’m feeling that day.” Users can also post photos to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Flickr through Instagram.

ooVoo

This app lets you jump onto a live video call with up to 12 friends. You also can send texts, pictures and video messages. My son uses it for group conversations.

GroupMe

This app facilitates large-group text chats. There’s an ongoing GroupMe group for my son’s high school choir. Sometimes he uses it to share silly comments; other times it’s a way to organize social events. He and his friends used this app to coordinate an apple-picking outing this past fall. 

Twitter

My son follows politicians, celebrities and friends on Twitter. He says he feels connected to the world this way. He likes hearing about topics outside of school and his friends. He also uses it to catch up on a lot of Vines — six-second video loops created by users in yet another mobile app, Vine. 

A source for news, too

What I found most intriguing about all this is how he depends on these apps for communication. 

It’s how he takes in news — whether it’s what’s going on with friends or the world in general. While I might depend on TV or a website for this sort of info, he looks for it in the quick blast that social media sends him. 

While he does watch the news with me in the morning, he comes home at the end of the day and says: “Did you hear what Trump said about this?!” 

While it’s called a phone, its phone function is rarely used. My son’s apps give him the tools he needs to communicate — with everyone except for dear ol’ Mom and Dad. 

I require a call now and then. When I asked him if he thought he could live without his phone, he responded, “It’s entertaining, but I wouldn’t die without it.” 

And as for Snapchat being OK for his tweenage sister to use: “No”, he said. “She needs to wait ’til high school for that.”


Jennifer Wizbowski lives in Excelsior. Send comments, questions and story ideas to jwizbowski@mnparent.com.