On June 21, Snapchat launched a feature – Snap Map – that caused  parents, law enforcement, and some reporters to fret wildly about the safety of teenagers using Snapchat. Snap Map shows people on Snapchat where their friends are, on a map, in precise up-to-the-second detail. Even if the idea of a feature on your teen’s phone that reveals their location doesn’t already worry you, it probably will after you read all the warnings.


This is, absolutely, a good reason to talk to your kids (again) about privacy in the Internet age. This all might seem like another cool thing to them but there are serious dangers with location tracking and software companies have not always done everything possible to make sure that the youngest people using their tools know this. That role, sadly, has fallen squarely on parents. And kids are much more willing to discuss privacy, bullying, sexting, or anything that is a reality of their ever-connected lives when you tie it to something that isn’t their fault. And talking about it when things are smooth sailing (versus when there’s friction) helps them form safety protocols, a moral compass, and their own opinions.

Location tracking is not a new thing. There have been many apps that do it, from Foursquare to Facebook to Twitter and many lesser known ones, for quite some time. As both a parent of teens and someone who has used location sharing services with my own friends, I am not freaking out. I know I have schooled my kids on what the dangers are. And this can be quite fun – if you know how to manage the information and who can see it.

So this is a perfect opportunity to ask your kids: Do they know all their friends in Snapchat? (Some kids collect friends without worrying about who they are. And that is – for many reasons – quite dangerous.) Are they aware of the feature? Do they know how to turn it off? And do they know how to tell who can see where they are?

Chances are pretty good, if your kids use Snapchat, that they already know the answers to all of this. So this conversation will likely go better if you ask questions rather than bleat out hysterical pronouncements like, “OMG! Predators can find you just by looking at their phones!” Here’s the scoop:

  • Only people your teen is friends with can see her location.
  • The default for Snap Maps is off. (This is also called Ghost Mode.) So, if her friends can see where she is, it’s because she turned Snap Map location sharing on.
  • If she turns Ghost Mode off and thereby shares her location, she can also choose which of her friends can see her location. So, even if there are friends in her Snapchat circle who she is not close to, she can elect not to share her location with them.
  • All she has to do to hide from all of her friends, in an instant, is set Snap Map to Ghost Mode. (Do this by pinching the screen from the Snapchat camera. From there, you can change the settings.) Her location will disappear from the map almost immediately.

I confirmed all of this with the folks at Snapchat. “The safety of our community is very important to us,” a Snapchat spokesperson told me. This is why Snap Map launched in Ghost Mode as the default so people would be have to choose to share their location — and think about who they were sharing it with — before they did it.

Another distinction, Snapchat suggests parents discuss with youngsters using Snapchat is that there is a big difference between  ‘My Story’ and ‘Our Story.’ “Snaps that are submitted to ‘Our Story’ (the distinction is clear in Snapchat) can be part of a story on a Snap Map. These are not Snaps sent between friends, but ones shared with the Snapchat community.”

I took this opportunity to talk to my daughter. And, as is often the case when I venture into these little chats, I learned more than she did.

“I think Snap Maps is a helpful feature,” she informed me, without hesitation, when I asked her if she knew about the feature. “It is a fun way to snoop on someone who bailed on plans just to stay home and watch TV.” There was only a short pause before she sussed out my parental worry and dealt with it before I had time to form a question. “But you can also turn on Ghost Mode so no one can track you.”

I felt a pang of sympathy for her boyfriend, who I suspected was guilty of last-minute-bailing-on-plans in favor of a night of TV. He is living with one of the (new) harsh modern realities of dating: Busted by Snap Map.

“Of course, if he went into ghost mode, he’d be in trouble,” she continued, confirming my suspicions. “We live in an era of tracking, not trust.”

I am sure there is a conversation in there that I am supposed to have with her, even though she clearly understands the dangers of strangers in social media, how to change the settings in Snapchat, and the value of safety protocols around online privacy. (This is not the first time she and I have had these little chats.) But I don’t know how to dial back the clock.

So, I laughed instead and suggested she write a book about the effects of the Internet and smart phones on modern relationships.