With some 347 million active daily users worldwide, Snapchat is right up there among the most popular social media platforms. Unsurprisingly, teens make up a significant portion of its loyal user base. An estimated 122 million Snapchat users are between 13 and 17 years old, and that same demographic accounts for 21% of the platform’s total ad audience.

The photo- and video-sharing app, where you can enhance your selfies with an ever-expanding array of filters (or even make your own), is designed to let users “capture what it’s like to live in the moment,” according to Snapchat.

Translation: Snapchat enables users, in particular teens and tweens, to go ahead and send that provocative photo or crack a cringey joke, all with the expectation that their rapid-fire exchanges will soon vanish from view — along with any chance of public embarrassment or other negative consequences. If you’re a parent, you know what an enormous appeal that kind of promise holds for kids on social media.

Unfortunately, it’s pretty hard to guarantee that user-generated content ever really disappears from Snapchat (or any online platform) after it’s posted. We’ll get to the how and why of that issue in a moment.

One thing we are certain about is that internet safety for kids is top of mind for most parents. Whether your teen has been obsessed with Snapchat for years or you’re thinking about letting your youngest go forth and start their first-ever Snapchat “streak,” our guide has you covered with tips on parental controls, data collection, and yes, some clarity about the shelf-life of those snaps.

My kid wants to start using Snapchat. What do I need to know?

First, you should be aware that Snapchat’s parent company Snap Inc. says its products aren't intended for children younger than 13, warns Jen Caltrider, lead of Mozilla's *Privacy Not Included initiative, which reviews the privacy and security of internet-connected products.

“I'll bet many parents of children 12 and younger have had them beg to get a Snapchat account because their friends all have it,” Caltrider says. Her advice for parents: “Don’t give in.”

“I know, I know, that leaves your kid at a social disadvantage. That will be temporary,” she says.

Caltrider’s tough love approach stems from the fact that Snap collects “a ton of personal information, precise location and other usage data on their users and uses that for targeted, behavioral advertising purposes.” And that’s not great if you want your kid to have privacy now or in the future, she says.

According to the company’s privacy policy, it may collect a user’s real name, username, password, email address, phone number, and date of birth. It’s also privy to whatever users willingly share on the platform, such as snaps and chats; and it collects lots of details about users’ activity, including which filters or lenses they use, which stories they watch on Discover, the search queries they submit, and who they interact with — including the number of messages they exchange with friends, and the time and date those messages were sent, the policy states.

My kids already use the app. What should I know about the new Snapchat parental controls?

Until recently, Snapchat did not offer "parental controls" like we’re familiar with on other social media platforms — and that was a big problem for anyone who cares about internet safety for kids.

In August 2022, Snapchat began rolling out a new parental monitoring feature called Family Center designed for parents who want to keep an eye on their child’s Snapchat activity, “while still respecting their teens’ privacy and autonomy,” according to the company. The feature is geared toward users under age 18, and both kids and parents must opt in to use it.

While parents can’t view the content of their child’s Snapchat messages, the monitoring feature lets them see who their child has recently chatted with as well as their existing friend list. Parents can also confidentially report any accounts they’re concerned about to Snapchat’s Trust and Safety teams.

The Family Center gives parents added control over their kids’ Snapchat account (via Snapchat)
The Family Center gives parents added control over their kids’ Snapchat account (via Snapchat)

Discussing the new parental controls with your child or teen can open the door to a broader conversation about how to use social media responsibly, and why that’s important, says Shivvy Jervis, a digital trends consultant and forecaster based in the U.K.

Jervis has a few other tips for privacy-minded parents:

  • Bookmark or download this handy visual-based guide to Snapchat’s privacy settings. Anytime you need a refresher, review it with your child and update their account as needed.
  • Make sure your kids know how to report inappropriate or offensive content, and encourage them to report it, if and when they encounter it on the app.
  • Consider turning on “ghost mode,” to further reduce “digital breadcrumbs” that can allow bad actors to trace a Snapchat user’s location.

“A significant number of people — not just children — leave the ‘share your location’ toggle to ‘on’ and do not disable location sharing,” Jervis says.

From her perspective, the app’s Snap Map feature is especially concerning because it encourages users to submit snaps from anywhere globally. And as of 2022, it allows for real-time location-sharing among users who are friends on the app — a red flag when it comes to maintaining kids’ privacy.

So, how about those “disappearing” messages?

The disappearing messages feature that makes Snapchat so fun and appealing for many young people has also created a storm of parental anxiety, public debate, and even legal claims against Snapchat over the years.

The company’s main privacy policy says that “most messages,” like snaps and chats sent in the app, are “automatically deleted by default” from the company’s servers after they’re opened by all recipients or have expired. Unopened messages are automatically deleted in either seven or 31 days, depending on the type of message; but different rules apply to stories and other types of content.

Maybe you’re comfortable enough with these policies. And sure, the new Snapchat parental controls offer some reassurances. Keep in mind, though, that any friend or random person your child sends a snap to can easily take a screenshot of the image using their phone or a third-party screen-capture app.

When a recipient takes a screenshot with their phone, Snapchat says it notifies the sender that the image was captured, but third-party apps don't trigger a notification, according to the nonprofit Common Sense Media, which published a parents’ guide to Snapchat in 2021. That means you and your child may not know if a recipient is up to something shady until it’s too late.

“For these reasons, it's best that teens understand that nothing done online is really temporary,” writes Common Sense Media reviewer Christine Elgersma. “Before sending a sexy or embarrassing snap of themselves or someone else, it's important to remember that the picture could circulate the school by tomorrow morning.”