Police are warning teens and their parents about a new location-sharing feature on Snapchat, a popular social app, that they fear may give out too much information about the whereabouts of its youngest users.
Introduced on June 21, Snap Map allows users to share their location with anyone on their Snapchat friend list and see the locations of their friends who do the same. The feature is a new way to use the location services already available in many other smartphone apps.
But police worry that Snapchat’s playful, easy-to-use appeal to children and teens could lead to an abuse of the new Snap Map feature by those who want to hurt them.
“[Snap Map] seems to be something that people, parents especially, weren’t aware of,” said Trooper Dustin Fitch, who is the social media specialist for the State Police. “Anybody can ‘friend’ anybody, and with this new update, anyone who is ‘friends’ with you can see your exact location.”
Fitch posted a warning on his Facebook page, hoping parents would take notice and talk to their children about the potential dangers of the new feature. By the next day, the post had been shared more than 9,700 times.
In his post, Fitch told parents how to access the map and how to help their children switch into “ghost mode,” which hides their location from friends. Users in ghost mode can still see the location of friends who have not hidden their locations.
Snapchat users, who are required to be 13 years old, need to actively open Snapchat for their location to update on the map, according to a Snapchat spokesman.
Snapchat published “A Parent’s Guide to Safety” to answer basic questions about the app and give parents advice on speaking to their children about safety online. It tells parents that users who enable ghost mode will “disappear from the map within seconds.”
The guide reminds parents that there are risks that come with posting personal information that strangers can see and recommended that parents discuss the risks with their teenage children.
“It is important to talk to teens about being thoughtful while using social media,” the guide states. “Remind your teens that they should speak to a trusted adult when they see something that concerns them, and to avoid meeting up with strangers, even if they have an online friendship with them.”
In many ways, Snap Map mimics other social media platforms that attempt to connect friends so they can meet up offline, said Brad Sago, a professor at Hult International Business School in Cambridge who studies social media consumer behavior.
Apple has “Find my friends” while Facebook and Instagram allow users to tag themselves at certain locations and see who else has been there. Twitter gives users an option to add a location when they post a tweet.
Ultimately, Sago said, the safety of any user depends on who they choose to add to their contact list.
Some 12-year-olds can have hundreds of online friends, he said. Because of that, Sago said he understands why parents might be worried.
Werner Kunz, director of the Digital Media Lab at University of Massachusetts Boston, agreed that as a parent, he’d likely tell a child to disable the tracking feature, but also emphasized that users of any age can fall victim to the kind of danger that worries State Police.
“The parents, or the Baby Boomers, the Generation X, they’re sharing all type of photos. It’s not only the Generation Z who is not careful about that,” he said. “We can all learn and be more mature about that . . . and making deliberate decisions about what we want to share and not.”
A few teens interviewed by the Globe said that the new feature could be seen as “creepy,” but also agreed that if used only by friends, it could be useful.
Three Quincy teens, who on a recent afternoon were hanging out near Faneuil Hall, had just used the app to find another friend they hadn’t known was also in Boston.
“At first, I thought this is kind of creepy because it really is,” said Serena Krejci-Papa, 15. “But if you’re making [smart] decisions as a whole, only adding people you know, it won’t be [unsafe].”