x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 23 November 2017

New Snapchat feature Snap Maps sparks fears over child safety

Schools issue warning over social network's new location feature

Snapchat has about 7 million active daily users in Saudi Arabia and 1 million daily users in the UAE (Lionel Bonaventure / AFP)
Snapchat has about 7 million active daily users in Saudi Arabia and 1 million daily users in the UAE (Lionel Bonaventure / AFP)

UNITED KINGDOM // A new feature on Snapchat which allows users' locations to be accurately displayed on a map has sparked fears it could expose children to stalkers.

The Snap Maps feature allows users to see the precise location of their contacts. The user must decide to share their location and it is visible for users who have agreed to be 'friends' on the app. The app update may have been installed onto devices automatically.

Launched in September 2011 by Evan Spiegel, the 27-year-old billionaire who married Miranda Kerr this year, Snapchat is an image messaging and multimedia mobile app, developed by Snap Inc. Its original premise focused on person-to-person photo sharing. Photos were only viewable for a limited period of time.

The application has gradually added features such as video chat, augmented reality, geo stickers (location specific stickers that can be added to snaps), and most recently Snap Maps.

By the end of 2016, Snapchat had 161 million daily users, however its parent company Snap inc. made a loss of $514.6 million in the same year. Much of its market share has been lost to Instagram, a rival photo-sharing social media app that has adopted some of Snapchat's features.

Snapchat has previously drawn criticism for appearing to facilitate underage sexting (sexually explicit messages). The Snap Maps feature, which uses augmented reality technology, has prompted warnings from schools and child welfare campaigners who fear the information could put youngsters in danger.

In an email sent to parents, one school said: "We have become aware of an issue affecting all users of the Snapchat App that can put users in danger.

"Some users may have upgraded the App automatically, unaware of the addition of this feature which allows other users to track your location in real time as you post pictures.

"By default the feature will allow anyone you are friends with on Snapchat to do this."

Snapchat offers a “ghost mode” setting which prevents others from seeing users’ locations, but some fear it does not go far enough to protect users’ privacy.

Child charity the NSPCC was one of many organisations who warned about the feature in the first few days of its release.

It has since offered advice on how to keep children safe.

Joseph Evans, senior research analyst for Enders Analysis, explained: “Snap is hoping that brand ad budgets will move from TV to mobile, providing a windfall that will make it profitable. But it faces a series of daunting challenges: growth is slowing; it can’t differentiate when rivals like Instagram quickly match new features; and costs are high due to computing requirements and its need to innovate”.

“Most importantly, TV budgets are likely to stay with quality content watched on TV sets, and Snap doesn’t yet have access to smart TVs or longform content.”

“In the long term, its investments in Augmented Reality may give it unique inventory suitable for brand advertisers.”