Snapchat, the popular disappearing photo and chat app favored among many teens, has announced that a new feature called the Family Center will be released globally in the coming weeks, giving parents the ability to look in on whom their kids are chatting with.
"Family Center is designed to reflect the way that parents engage with their teens in the real world, where parents usually know who their teens are friends with and when they are hanging out — but don’t eavesdrop on their private conversations," the company said in a press release.
According to press materials, the new feature requires that both the child and the parent consent to the monitoring. Once a parent has been given access to monitor their teen's account, they will be able to see a list of their teen's friends and report anything they find suspicious. As designed, the tool would not notify a parent of any alternative Snapchat accounts a child might have.
The announcement of the new feature comes amid mounting pressure from activists and lawmakers.
For years, parents of teens who have died after purchasing drugs laced with fentanyl from people on Snapchat have been calling for the company to work to prevent such tragedies from happening again.
Many have asked the company to allow parental monitoring apps access to Snapchat chats so that parents can be alerted about certain types of chats and content deemed dangerous.
Snapchat and several other apps have pushed back against this idea, citing privacy concerns.
Sam Chapman, the father Sammy Chapman — a teen who died after taking fentanyl-laced drugs found on Snapchat — has worked with the Organization for Social Media Safety to help develop "Sammy's Law," a bill that would force social media companies like Snapchat to work with surveillance apps.
Last week, NBC News reported that Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., was working to find a co-sponsor to help introduce Chapman's bill to the House in the coming weeks.
Wasserman Schultz called Snapchat's new feature "a step forward," but noted that she believed children are still at risk.
"Parents should be able to know more than just the name with whom their child is communicating," she wrote in an email. "Snapchat and other platforms are not a substitute for parents’ need to keep their children safe, which is why we urgently need to pass Sammy’s Law — to comprehensively protect children not just on Snapchat, but on all social media platforms.”
In an email, Chapman criticized Snapchat's announcement, calling it "a PR beard for what’s actually happening, which is kids are dying." Chapman noted that the new tool would not prevent a teen from switching accounts or platforms to avoid monitoring.
A Snapchat representative noted that it's against its terms of service to have multiple accounts, and that if a person does have multiple accounts they would have to fully log out of the app to toggle between them.
Marc Berkman, CEO of the Organization for Social Media Safety, questioned the utility of the tool.
"Parents have always had the ability to review their children’s Snapchat friends directly through their children’s accounts; however, this safety tactic can often be very limited in its effectiveness," he said in an email. "A parent seeing new friends added to Snapchat regularly will have to trust the child as to who is being added or undertake some heroic verification processes. We are fairly confident that most teens are not going to be truthful with their parents about the drug dealer they just added to their account."
Snapchat said in a blog that it developed the Family Center to "empower parents and teens in a way that still protects a teenager’s autonomy and privacy."