Location, location, location

Location-based services (LBS) are used in a range of apps and online services. It makes sense that LBS are necessary to pinpoint your location for mapping services, but it isn’t always clear how LBS can be used—or misused—on mainstream social media services.

The recent release of Snapchat’s latest feature, Snap Map, raised quite a global furore and seems to have gotten teens hooked, parents worried, and a whole bunch of people confused about whether location-based services are a good or bad idea. This is not surprising as there was a lot of conflicting information in the popular media about this feature’s release.

Research conducted by the eSafety Office indicates that Snapchat is one of the most popular social media apps among Australian teens. Like other social media services, Snapchat is for ages 13+. For those who have not had a chance to interact with Snap Map, it’s fairly simple: by opening Snapchat and pinching your screen in camera mode, a map appears allowing you to track the location of your friends and events across the globe in real time.

As it happens, I met up with the safety, public policy and technology leads at Snapchat the day after Snap Map was launched. Being the eSafety Commissioner, I was obviously concerned about what protections were incorporated to safeguard Snapchatters. The team pointed out that the Map is turned off by default, which is also known as ‘Ghost Mode’. They also walked me through the Snap Map on-boarding process where the user has to proactively decide to share their location, as this feature is optional. Through this opt-in process, there are also prompts to check out Snap’s Privacy Center, and there is a robust Safety Center too. I was satisfied that there was solid consideration of safety and privacy protections and enough prompts for users to make an informed decision about whether or not to turn on Snap Map.

But, there are a few things I believe parents should know, because any apps that are popular with young people can attract predators or abusive behaviour. Snapchat is largely designed to encourage interactions and chats between known friends. For this reason, they have a ‘Select Friends’ setting, which is more protective than the broader ‘My Friends’ setting. If Location Settings are turned on, our recommendation is that ‘Select Friends’ be activated by tapping the settings wheel on the top right corner of the Map and selecting only close friends and family.

A good point to note is that it’s not possible to share your location with someone who is not your friend on Snapchat. The Snap team advised there would continue to be periodic prompts to Snapchatters about whether or not they wanted to keep this setting and noted that only mutual Friends could see each other on the Map. Parents can understand more about how their kids can find and add friends here and should also know that there is a Nearby feature that also employs LBS.

For more information on Snapchat safety, check out the eSafety Office updated guide on the ins and outs of games, apps and social networking.

So as a parent, what should you do about LBS? 

There’s no need to hit the panic button and disconnect your kids from technology to keep them safe—understanding and using the available settings can actually make LBS a really helpful tool. For parents, it’s a great way to check in and see where your kids are. For mature teens, it can allow them to quickly find their friends when meeting up, or even locate a friend who may be in trouble.

We hope the introduction of Snap Map serves as a prompt for parents and carers to have an open discussion with their children about the pros and cons of LBS—reinforcing the hazards of blindly trusting anonymous users online and sharing your precise real time location with them. We also hope this helps start an important conversation with your kids about what they are doing online.

Ultimately, the greatest help we can offer our children is to remain engaged with their online lives—know the apps and services they’re using and help them set up their accounts and devices so services like LBS can be disabled or used safely. Online safety is a journey, not a destination and a great one to take together with our kids!

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