Alone With Snapchat: Where Children View Mass Shootings

Studies indicate teen depression is on the rise. Is social media to blame?

Posted Aug 09, 2019

Manfred Antranias Zimmer from Pixabay, used with permission.
Child Alone With Cellphone
Source: Manfred Antranias Zimmer from Pixabay, used with permission.

It’s been an awfully stressful week, filled with non-stop media coverage of horrific back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, as well as Mississippi ICE raids that left parentless children in tears. Many adults feel frazzled and tense. Oh, to be a kid again, free from the anxiety wrought by current events—right?

Wrong.

In case you missed it, one of the most viral videos from the El Paso shooting shows a shopper fleeing the shopping center as the shooting was taking place. It originated on Snapchat. Yes, Snapchat. The very same app that, if you are a parent of a teen-aged (or even younger) child, is probably on your kid’s phone right now. Snapchat is currently the most popular social media network amongst US teens. Nearly 75 percent of American teens age 13-17 use it. 

What Do You Know About Snapchat?

I’m always surprised at how little most parents know about Snapchat. At the parent presentations I give, I often ask how many adults use, or have even tried using, this app. Only a very few (mostly young) parents raise their hands. But even if parents don’t use the app, most know, more or less, that young people like Snapchat because the photos and videos they post supposedly disappear after being viewed by friends (although every crafty teen knows how to grab a screenshot of any snap they do want to keep!). What parents usually don’t know about, however, is Snapchat’s “Discover” section. 

This is a part of the app that features short video clips, or “stories,” often about current events. They are provided by popular news outlets (like Esquire, CNN, Wall Street Journal, Bazaar, People, and more) along with stories provided by Snapchat users. Stories that get the most clicks make it to the top of Discover’s feed. These tend to be the more salacious stories (here’s an example: Seventeen's "Where to Get Condoms Without Parent’s Knowing”). 

But this week, lots of stories about the mass shootings ended up on Snapchat too, including the video referenced above. If you watched it, then you know how disturbing it felt to experience the shooting along with the person who shot this video. Even though it appears on Snapchat with a warning—“may disturb some viewers”—many young people likely watched it anyway.

Many of these kids were probably alone with their devices, left to make sense of this horrific event without the benefit of an adult explanation or consolation, or even reassurance that their own back-to-school shopping trip won’t end in similar bloodshed. 

This Isn’t The First Time

In the old days, say a generation or so ago, when national tragedies happened, they were aired on a television in the family living room. Parents could censor, console, or explain current events to their young children.

But today, tragedy is unfolding online—often in real-time—on sites like Snapchat. For example, during the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students used social media sites like Snapchat to document and share images, video, and sounds of the event as it was happening. This provided opportunities for others (read: your kid) to share in the horror. 

Just last month, Pew Research Center reported that a growing number of American teens, especially girls, are experiencing depression. Many are linking this trend with the increased usage of smartphones and social media by teens. In another study published last month in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, researchers found that for every additional hour young people spend on social media or watching television, the severity of depressive symptoms they experience goes up.

Yet, for every study that links technology to teen depression, you can find one that reports that technology has little effect on a teen’s wellbeing, such as this major study published earlier this year in which researchers from Oxford University conclude that technology has little effect on a teen’s negative mental health. 

What’s a Parent To Do?

Rather than parse through conflicting studies to figure out if social media is making your kids depressed or not, parents should, and must, take matters into their own hands. Find our what your own cellphone-wielding kids are doing on their phones. 

According to recent data, the average American child receives his or her first smartphone at age 10.3 years of age, and opens a first social media shortly thereafter—by age 11.4. By the time he or she is 12 years of age, 50 percent have signed up for at least one social media platform, and usually it’s Snapchat. Even though the app’s stated minimum age of use is 13, children may not think twice about giving the app a fake birthdate in order to use the app and get access to much of the content described above.

Snapchat does filter content based on the age of the user; however, its algorithms are useless if an 11-year-old is giving the app a fake birthday.

So here’s what to do:

  1. Be sure your children are adhering to the age restrictions of the social media networks they use. Most require users to be at least 13 years of age. If your children are 13 or older, be sure they are providing the platform their real ages.
  2. Ask your children what they are seeing on the social networks they use. Don’t be judgmental; rather, have a discussion and be curious. You might learn something or be able to provide guidance or solace. Who knows?
  3. Help your child navigate and use Snapchat’s (or any social media network's) privacy settings. Snapchat's are remarkably good. Here is an excellent guide to help you. 

It’s been a long week, and, understandably, the last thing you may want to do is talk about current events. But if you have a kid on a phone, it’s better they get their current events with a healthy dose of parental guidance—otherwise, we may all end up frazzled, anxious, and depressed.