Snapchat Snap Map: what happens when teenagers track each other’s exact locations?

“His girlfriend saw him on the map and accused him of cheating.” 

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When Snap Map was released last month, it was instantly condemned. The new Snapchat feature allows users to see one another’s location on a cartoon world map. Whether you’re in your car, at home, or hanging out with friends, the map will display your Actionmoji (a little avatar, also called Bitmoji) of your exact location, down to the street address.

 Via @CaitlinHood98

Snap Map has been called “creepy” “stalky” and “dangerous” in headlines since its June 2017 release, and parents, schools, and the police have voiced concerns about children’s safety when using the app. It seems like a grim inevitability that Snap Map will eventually hit the headlines when a stalker uses it against a victim, and privacy concerns about the feature are exceptionally valid.

But for now, the map is causing different problems.

“My friend was actually in the mall and his ex was there,” says Chris Baer, 21, from Virginia. When Snap Map users are in the same location, their Bitmoji are displayed near each other or in a circle. This means you can tell – or think you can tell – which people are hanging out together. “His girlfriend saw it on the map and accused him of cheating,” explains Chris.

When it comes to Snap Map, young people aren’t scared about stalkers or strangers – their biggest worry is each other. The map can jeopardise relationships in a number of ways. People can see when their friends are hanging out without them, they can tell when someone has lied about setting off but is still at home, and – when checking at night – they can figure out who’s sleeping with whom. The feature even allows you to see the last time someone sent a Snap, meaning you can tell if they’ve been ignoring your messages.

Yet the map is also being used in unpredictably great ways. After nights out, girls are using it to check whether their friends got home safely. People also use it as a navigational tool, to find their way to events where their friends are. Many teens believe the feature has improved their geography skills, as well as their knowledge of the world map. Sometimes, it’s just fun. When Chris first updated Snapchat and drove to the American fast food restaurant Hardee’s, his phone pinged with a message. “You don’t need any Hardee’s,” said his friend from Florida, 800 miles away.

Aleah Wendels is an 18-year-old from Wisconsin who uses the map to find out when her friends are working at their respective restaurants, and goes to visit them when she wants to get food. “I think it's a fun thing to just check out where all your friends are,” she says. She also uses the app to find out if there are parties happening nearby.

“My friend called me out for spending time with a boy” 

Yet Brooke Bartelt, 21, from Arkansas, uses the feature for more anti-social reasons. Before she goes to the gym, she checks if there’s someone there that she doesn’t want to bump into. “I definitely love the fact that I can use it to avoid people I don’t want to see,” she says, although she admits she was “caught” by the map when her friend saw that she was spending time with a boy.

“I have a friend who is constantly asking me to hang out, and because I work full-time I always tell her I am too tired to do anything,” explains Brooke. “One night she texted me going: ‘Hmm, looks like you’re not as busy as you said’. I had no idea she even knew the guy, much less had him as a friend on Snapchat.”

Despite this, neither Brooke nor Aleah are too worried about privacy, as both use Snap Map’s “Ghost Mode” when they don’t want to be seen. This setting means your Snapchat friends can no longer see your Bitmoji on the map, although you can still see theirs. People might use it if they’ve lied to a friend or if they’re going to visit someone in secret. But Becky Merzlyakov, a 20-year-old from New York, turned it on after a friend called her a “nerd”.

“I felt like such a loser” 

“One day a friend texted me saying how I’m such a nerd because all I do is sit at home all day... how did he know that?” says Becky. “I remembered Snap Map a few moments later and felt like such a loser. He knew I was home all the time because Snap Map showed him I never left my house.

“So just to keep myself from feeling like a friendless loser I went on Ghost… Not only do I feel like my privacy was invaded I feel embarrassed.”

Dr Dawn Branley, a cyberpsychologist specialising in the risks and benefits of online life, believes Snap Map can be good and bad for young people. “There are some potential positives to the technology – for example it can encourage users to be more socially active,” says Branley. “Any features which encourage app users to become more active in the offline world have the potential for health benefits, both physically and mentally. The Snap Map feature may make users more aware of events around their neighbourhood or make them more likely to meet up with friends in the real world.”

Yet Branley believes this is potentially a “double-edged sword”. Isolated young people may find themselves watching others socialising and become jealous and upset, she explains. “In other words, there is a concern that the technology may make ‘the socially rich richer, and the socially poor poorer’.”

Branley, like many experts, is also worried about privacy, and hopes Snap Map will incorporate a privacy feature like the one used by the fitness tracking app, Strava. This app allows users to create a privacy shield around a radius of a specific address – for example, their homes – meaning that while in this area, their location is hidden from others. 

“It’s a messy story but it's a lesson learned for sure” 

None of the people I speak to are excessively worried about privacy, though most seem savvy about how and when to use Ghost Mode. When Snap Map first launched, Chris went through his Snapchat friends and deleted anyone that he didn't personally know. Becky, who was stalked by a stranger on Facebook when she was 18, keeps all her social media on private and makes sure she only adds people she knows on Snapchat. “It’s a messy story but it's a lesson learned for sure,” she says.

In fact, Snap Map actually might be beneficial for adults who are worried about their teens. Search the words "Snap Map, aunt" on Twitter and in the last few weeks there are stories of aunts finding out where their nieces are, picking up their family from parties, and asking their relatives why they're out so late. Mums and dads can check exactly where their children are if they miss curfew, saving a lot of potential worry. 

It is evident that Snap Map has the potenital to be a dangerous invasion of privacy. For now, however, the reality of the map's use is much more banal. Snap Map is revolutionising the way teenagers act and interact – both online and off. 

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh