Should parents be concerned about Snapchat's Snap Map?

With phones to track their every step, some parents are concerned about their children's safety

Snapchat Snap Map
(Image credit: Carl Court/Getty Images)

The photo-sharing social media app Snapchat has been updated with a new feature that shows people where their friends are in the world.

The feature, called Snap Map, can accurately pinpoint and show the location of Snapchat users and – to an extent – what they are doing.

However, a video posted on Loose Women star Nadia Sawalha's Facebook page has highlighted some major concerns for parents whose children use the app.

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The video, which has amassed over 26 million views, questions whether children and teenagers will be safe if they are constantly sharing their location with others.

So how does Snap Map work and what can be done to prevent children from sharing their location online?

How it works

Snap Map allows users to show their location to their friends, even when photo sharing is not in use.

Using the location services on a smartphone, which tracks movements through GPS (global positioning systems), the user's exact whereabouts are broadcast on a map of the world with a high level of accuracy.

A video posted by the BBC says that users on Snapchat who have enabled the feature can see what building their friends are in, if they are driving or whether they are about to go on a plane.

Users and their friends appear as cartoon-like avatars on the world map, while heat charts indicate where the highest concentration of Snapchat users are.

Why it's a privacy concern

While Nadia Sawalha's viral Facebook video details how the app works, its main message expresses concern for parents whose children use the app on a regular basis.

"This is so dangerous", she says, adding that the feature "is a step too far."

Her concerns include the reaction children and teenagers might have if they see all their friends are at a party they were not invited to, or if people use it as a tool to see if their partner is cheating on them.

Both Sawalha and her teenage daughter, Maddie, say they were unaware it existed on the app for several days.

While Snap Map is an opt-in service that alerts users that their location will be shared, The Verge says "it's vague on what that exactly means."

It says that some people "might not understand that [Snapchat] is posting your location on Snap Map every time you open the app", not just when pictures are actively shared.

There's also a concern that "many people often agree to updates and new settings on apps without looking at the specifics". This could lead to users quickly accepting requests to access their location as they may think it is a simple update notification.

This was echoed by a mother, who told the BBC that she was "a little bit worried" that her 11-year-old son could be located by "predators" and "bullies."

The risks are serious enough for the police to have been alerted. The Daily Telegraph reports that forces have warned parents "to turn off Snap Maps on their children's phones".

The UK Safer Internet Centre told the newspaper: "Given how specific this new feature is on Snapchat – giving your location to a precise pinpoint on a map – we would encourage users not to share their location, especially with people they don't know in person."

However, Snapchat told The Verge: "The safety of our community is very important to us and we want to make sure that all Snapchatters, parents and educators have accurate information about how the Snap Map works."

How it can be avoided

The service is not activated by default. Instead it requires users to physically accept several requirements before the feature is enabled.

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When opening Snap Map for the first time, users are asked to allow the app access to their location. Then, it asks them who they want to see their location. This can include all their Snapchat friends or just a selection of them.

Parents concerned about their children posting their location online will want "Ghost Mode", which completely hides users from their friends. The app still tracks their location but this can be stopped by either preventing Snapchat from using their smartphone's location services or disabling the GPS-tracking feature on their mobile altogether.

It's been seen before

Sharing your location with friends isn't a new phenomenon on social media platforms. Some smartphone manufacturers have had similar systems in place for several years.

For instance, Apple's Find my Friends app allows people to track their friends in a similar fashion. Users can invite other iPhone owners to share their location with each other, which is displayed on a map of the world.

The majority of these services requires users to opt in. Such services therefore don't work without their permission.

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