According to a national survey of American teenagers conducted by the University of Chicago, around three-quarters of adolescents aged 13-17 use Snapchat regularly. Snapchat’s main draw is that it erases photos and videos just seconds after receipt.
Most teens use the app to share lighthearted, spontaneous moments. The app’s design is playful and fun. You can add stickers, doodles, or fun filters to a photo, turn yourself into an animated with face lenses, change your voice in a video, and much more. In comparison to other social media platforms, like Facebook and Instagram, most teens use Snapchat with their closest friends.
What Are Snapchat Streaks, Anyway?
But there’s one feature of the app that has begun worrying parents: Snapchat “streaks.” When two friends have been sending Snaps to each other every day for more than three consecutive days, it’s a “streak.” Streaks can go on for days, weeks, and even months. Every day they exchange Snaps, the streak gets longer. A little flame icon and a number next to a particular contact count how many days the streak has gone on for. The longer your streak, the more exciting it is. And the more pressure there is not to break it. Miss one 24-hour window, and you lost your entire streak.
Teens can get obsessive about maintaining their streaks—especially when they’ve gone on for so long. To adolescents, streaks can indicate the strength of a friendship; it can be thrilling to see that you’ve been interacting with someone via Snapchat every day for more than, say, 200 days. Or 1400 days. Some teens have been exchanging photos and videos every single day for years.
Streaks: Getting Teens Addicted
But there’s that pressure to open Snapchat every single day and send that all-important snap so as not to break the chain. Some even share their account info with a friend to keep the streak going on their behalf if they can’t send a snap within a certain 24-hour window (for example, if their phone was taken away). In an article by Business Insider, one teen shared that his friend actually woke him up in the middle of the night to make sure he wouldn’t lose the steak. “He called me four times…to keep the streak alive. He was like, ‘Are we still streaking?'” The stress, time, and energy spent on keeping streaks alive can obviously become unhealthy.
In fact, for adolescents with mental health issues, Snapchat streaks can be particularly problematic. Teens with low self-esteem or other mental health issues may use the app as a way to compensate for internal insecurities. To them, streaks can serve as general proof that they are likable. They can start basing their self-worth on the number of friends they interact with every day through the app, the number of days their streaks have been going strong, or the number of friends they talk to every day on Snapchat. As another teen admitted in the aforementioned article: “Having more streaks makes you feel more popular.”
(Of course, this holds true for any social media platform. Teens can base their sense of self-worth on the number of friends they have on Facebook. Or the number of Likes they get on Instagram selfies. But Snapchat streaks are unique as they basically force teens to use the app on a daily basis.)
Streaks Can Break
So, as you can imagine, what happens when you take this crutch—this mechanism providing daily doses of false confidence—away? When teens have their entire self-worth tied to the amount of engagement they’re receiving through social media, then it’s easy to imagine how devastated they can get when such engagement is low—or nonexistent. Likewise, it’s not hard to believe that a broken streak can lead to depression. In fact, Collin Kartchner, an Internet safety activist, anti-smartphone dad, and founder of the #SavetheKids movement, writes that certain adolescent girls have gone so far as to attempt suicide “from mom taking their phone and them losing their streaks.”
Advice to Parents
If your teen has a streak going on with a friend, don’t automatically be concerned. If they’re acting casual about it, and they don’t seem to care that much if the streak breaks, that’s a good sign. But do get worried if you notice that your teen feels pressured to maintain the streak every day. If they’re going out of their way just to send a snap, or you can see that they’re anxious about keeping the streak alive, there may be underlying mental health issues that need to be addressed. Likewise, if your teen is unusually upset when a streak has been broken, it’s time to have a conversation about their smartphone use as well as a discussion about why they’re feeling this way. Many times, it can be an indication that they’re struggling with emotional insecurities.