Snapchat: A modern babysitting club

For WGBH producer Bill Shribman, watching his daughter's friends care for one another's Snapstreak accounts offers a lesson in modern companionship.
May 10, 2016

We used to see how responsible our children were by having them babysit a neighbor’s pet, ideally without needing emergency veterinary care or a sudden trip to the pet store to find a lookalike.

But that is so ’90s.

There’s a new animal that teenagers regularly nurture for one another. As a senior executive producer of digital games at WGBH─and a parent of two teenage girls─I’d like to think of myself as fairly tapped into the social dynamics of today’s youth, but I only stumbled upon this creature very recently: Snapchat Streak.

When my youngest daughter had a concussion and could not look after her own Snapchat account, she asked her friend to take the reins. When another friend was going away on vacation and couldn’t look after her profile from afar, she asked my daughter to look after it for her.

For every day that a pair of Snapchatters exchange messages, it counts as one day of a Snapstreak. And these streaks regularly run into the tens, if not hundreds. Day after day of exchanges are tallied, codified and gamified. The app uses a flame emoji to indicate a friend with whom you’ve been streaking, and the duration of this streak is showcased for both parties to see.

Logistically, maintaining someone else’s account means you must keep sending pictures in order to keep it going. Since it is a borrowed account, protocol requires a polite post on the host’s Story to alert his or her followers that a stand-in will be sending selfies and maintaining all streaks, akin to an Out of Office message tagging a colleague. And so it goes, these accounts are maintained by proxies until the owner returns.

If you want to know why kids’ data usage is so high, there are answers in the little numbers that sit beside a Snapchatter’s contacts, which show his or her streaks. These tallies have helped gamify Snapchat and have made it a compelling daily habit for millions of teens, turning it not just into a messaging tool but also a contemporary Tamagotchi. Multiply these streaks by the numbers of their friends, and you can see why an overall Snapchat score–the total of messages an account has trafficked–may run up to (in my child’s case) a modest 75,000.

If I question the appeal of this immensely popular app that transmits photos and messages to self-destruct, I sound like I crawled out of a time machine from the BC era: Before Chat. One would think that Snapchat‘s allure is that it erases inappropriate messages or photos before parental eyes can see them. Alarmist media has focused on this. But that secretive, fleeting element is not the real draw. Kids don’t actually have a lot to say to one another over texts, inappropriate or otherwise, and most phones have passwords that keep parents’ hands off-limits, anyway.

When I was permitted to watch my teen swipe through her incoming Snaps, I saw a simple stream of seemingly random selfies from her friends. Despite Snapchat providing a facility for adding text to these images, only two words appeared in this entire lineup—the words Pineapple and Chunks, typed together as a caption for a photo that interestingly contained neither pineapples nor chunks.

To me, this photographic tennis conducted via Snapchat feels more like a constant reassurance of contact as opposed to a purposeful communication tool. It reminds me less of text messaging and more of this exchange, care of A. A. Milne:

Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. 

“Pooh!” he whispered.

“Yes, Piglet?”

“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. 

“I just wanted to be sure of you.”

This timeless need for human interaction and being sure of each other  is now being reinforced with points and scoring schemes. And kids may be better off for it. My daughter says she wants a dachshund. I’m not saying she’s any closer to getting one, but perhaps keeping Grace’s streak alive for a whole week is a good first step.

Bill Shribman is an EMMY-winning senior executive producer at WGBH in Boston and a producer of apps, websites and digital shenanigans for many signature TV brands. He writes for GeekDad and is a public speaker on topics from privacy and photography to media literacy and STEM. Visit for more.


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