Snapchat? Should I Subscribe?

A cartoon pane of two boys on Snapchat, the app. Subscriptions to channels are free but now the app offers a subscription. How confusing!
Snapshot? Should I subscribe?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My tween asked to use my credit card so she could get a Snapchat subscription. It’s only $3.99 a month but I don’t understand the need and she did not explain it to me very clearly. When I went on their web site I was even more confused since it seems like a free app. She mostly uses the app with a group of her girlfriends from school. So Snapchat, should I subscribe? Luna, Mill Valley

Dear Luna: I have some ideas for a subscription that you will hopefully find useful but first let me mention two preliminaries. As a parent, you should be aware of the map feature on Snapchat. Some users call it “creepy.” Enabled by default, the map allows any of your daughter’s friends to see her exact GPS location when she last opened the app. This is accurate enough to determine your home address.Not good! However, it can be disabled in the app’s settings. Second you did not mention the age of your tween but note that the legal age to open a Snapchat account is thirteen. 

Now, back to subscriptions. Snapchat is following in the footsteps of Twitter and Telegram with the subscription offer. It would be a good idea in my opinion if social media companies used monthly subscriptions to show us fewer ads, and if they agreed to not sell our data and tighten up their privacy policies. So far that has not happened. These premium subscriptions are geared towards power users and frequent viewers who value more custom features. 

Cosmetic Upgrades?:

A few years ago I wrote a column on a for-fee feature on Snap that let the user select custom stickers and text. The Verge, which has reviewed the current subscription offering finds similar changes.  They called the new subscription a “mostly cosmetic upgrade.” The $3.99 subscription will let users change the app’s icon, see who watched a story multiple times, and pin a friend at the top of the chat history as a BFF. That doesn’t sound like a lot for $3.99 a month, but there are probably other reasons that your tween or teen would favor it. Perhaps they want to be the first in their social group to try it out and/or they are a power user who plans to  demonstrate advanced skills and expertise with the app.

Last I checked, a subscription is a product or service we pay for on a reoccurring basis, say for Internet service or our phone plans. Snap, on the other hand, obfuscates the meaning of a subscription. With their free account you can interact with friends you personally knew, or post a subscription channel. In that case stories go to different viewers, not just friends. For instance, Snap allows a subscription channel for your dog and doggie pictures you select go out to anyone who cares to follow. These subscribers would be unlikely to follow your personal content. Snapchat also offers the opportunity to “subscribe” to a big, outside media channel. News outlets, like the UK Daily Mail, have popular subscriptions on Snapchat.  Note the multiples types of Snap ‘subscriptions’!

A Better Subscription:

So, while Snapchat has had subscriptions for free and now a new one for fee,  I have a suggestion for an entirely better one. For  marginally larger fee you can sign your tween up for an online subscription to your local newspaper, or a national one. I would recommend you consider this because the news feed we get on social media is highly personalized yet incomplete. Social media sites construct feeds with content that matches the users’ point of view to keep them engrossed and sell more ads. It’s called a filter bubble.  Newspapers have less imperative to select content this way and they actually employ journalists to write the stories they post! Newspaper reporting is usually the basis for most of the watered down feeds your daughter will read on Snapchat and other social media.  So, it’s valuable to expose her to the original stories and get her in the habit of reading a daily paper. If you are planning to get the $3.99 subscription to Snap then I think you owe it to your daughter to spend a little more each month and get a subscription with depth and analysis. It doesn’t sounds like this would present a hardship but be aware that your local library or school will have a subscription service to the newspaper on offer- something that Snapchat does not!

Did Tech Founders Not Allow Phones?

Maybe it’s B.S.? Before Smartphones?

A cartoon of a man with a laptop sitting on a bigger computer. He is hard at work. We ask whether tech founders allowed their kids to have phones.
Did Tech Founders Not Allow Phones?

Dear Ms Smartphone: Is it true that the tech founders like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs did not allow their children to have phones? I belong to a parents’ group that meets online and they thought this was important. But, I was wondering if it is true. Maybe it’s an urban legend?! Jessi, Oakland

Dear Jessi: First, my best effort to do some fact-checking with Google. I tracked down the attribution by Bill Gates to a Reuters story in 2007. The family limited game playing for their oldest daughter to 45 minutes a day and 1 hour on weekends. Gates additionally decreed that his children had to wait until they were age 14 to get a phone.  For Steve Jobs, the attribution appears in a 2010 or 2011 interview published by the New York Times in 2014. When the reporter asked him about the launch of the Ipad in 2010 Jobs said his children had not used it.  “ We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”  I add an essential qualification. When Gates and Jobs had young children, kids were gaming on laptops or consoles. They were not using smartphones. 

When you fast forward twelve years it’s a new ballgame. Today, smartphones reach down to the youngest age group. And, phones are portable, seemingly tethered to a child as they travel outside the home. Social media, which has blossomed since 2012, is remarkably different. Gaining ‘likes’ and ‘followers’ on social media can become compulsive. For many teens, especially girls, social media appears to be tied to self-image, mental health, and well-being.  Both teens and their parents complain that social media becomes “addictive.”

Kids, Teens, Media:

Your parenting group may want to note two legislative bills proposed by your local lawmakers in California.*  AB2408 and AB2273 try to reign in social media companies, websites, and apps that draw in children. The first bill (AB2408) would allow parents to sue social media platforms if their children become addicted- if they are harmed physically, mentally, emotionally or developmentally. The second bill (AB2273)  picks up regulation that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is supposed to reign in and tighten online privacy, data sharing, and tracking. 

Behavioral addictions which hospitalize people or render them incapable of living vaguely normal lives, are relatively rare. That’s according to author and NYU professor Adam Alter. But moderate behavioral addictions, like the ones targeted in AB2408, are more common. When a teen signs up for a social media account they can inadvertently drop into a swirling wormhole as they seek out new followers and likes. Or, they might compare themselves to an artificial and impossible body type and self-image. Social media may also divide their time and energy and draw them out of other activities. The sense I get of AB2408 is that behavioral addictions are for real. They make us less effective at work and play, and diminish our interactions with other people…they degrade our well being.

Code Up:

But, back to your original question. The children of Jobs and Gates are now adults so it would be notable if a reporter could seek them out and get the full story about their tech use. Meanwhile, here’s a less publicized  headline that Bill Gates made about children and technology.  In a 2013 video, called “What Most Schools Don’t Teach”  Gates says he got his first computer when he was 13 and taught himself to code. Other tech executives join in- Zuckerberg,  Dorsey, Houston, etc.  They inspired a non-profit called  Code.org that advocates for computer science classes in U.S. school curricula. When kids code their own programs and grasp the role of pre-programmed formulae they are less likely to be addicted and stay more savvy and informed on social media.

* The bills are sponsored by Assembly Member Buffy Wicks of Oakland and Jordan Cunningham of San Luis Obispo. 

Financial Apps for Kids?

Newly minted… fintech accounts for young people?

How should you save money? In an old fashioned piggy bank or online with your smartphone brokerage account?
Financial App for Kids? photo credit: Getty

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I am running out of ideas for Christmas gifts and thought about giving my niece and nephews something different. On TV I saw an ad for a company called Greenlight  that helps young people save money online and choose stocks. Myself, I have a few dollars in the stock market and think this might help them learn a thing or two about it. When I mentioned this gift idea (a financial app for kids) to friends in my book group they were aghast! BTW, my niece is 8 and my nephews are ages 10 and 13.  Nancy, Marlboro

Dear Nancy: I’m not sure what book your club is reading, but could it be “Flash Crash?”  The book jacket says investor Navinder Singh Sarao was a preternaturally gifted trader who amassed $70 million from his childhood bedroom….until! No spoilers here.

Financial apps for kids, called fintech, are new to me since I gave my kids a cash allowance! So, I looked up Greenlight, the company you mentioned. Note that their web site is off-putting: it requires that you enter a mobile number and verifies it before it lets you browse around.  

Greenlight describes itself as a one-stop financial app for families with a $4.99 monthly subscription (Dec. 2021). Here’s the kicker: With parental (or aunt) approval, kid can trade stocks on the app starting at $7.98 a month. That must be profitable because CNBC reports this seven year old company is now valued at 2.3 billion!!

Financial LiteracY:

But, important to note, Greenlight is one of many sites that set up online financial accounts for kids and purport to teach financial literacy and investing.  This recent Wired article helps you sort out other players.

On the one hand, your gift sounds like a timely idea.  We are all buying more things online and storing digital cash  in places like Apple Wallet and Google Pay. In an earlier post, I share a Wall St. Journal article reporting that cashless exchanges have “costs”: Those using credit cards are less likely to remember how much they spent, take less time deciding what to buy, are more willing to pay high prices and make a greater number of purchases. So, as currency changes, setting up a digital savings account may be valuable. Children need to learn about financial literacy.

Buckets of Money?

But, I also have two objections and these might be specific to the company you mention. First, the site recommends that a child’s account be apportioned into four buckets: money that kids spend, money they save, money they give away (for charity) and money they invest. These buckets, while enviable, are adult-centric, not for tiny beginners. I am assuming your nieces and nephews are not millionaires. Why give to a national charity, when there is so much to be done locally? The real donation, the one that kids learn from and that that makes a difference, is to give their time and labor to a local cause, and do so in person. Isn’t it more meaningful to help out at the local animal shelter and care for pets in need, than say give $1.00 a month to an animal relief fund?

The second issue I have, again, it may be specific to this site, is that young kids are too young to start investing in the stock market, particularly using their smartphone. We have already seen how flash investments through RobinHood and other phone based online trading sites have had their financial ups and downs, as well as their toll on mental health. And, here, investors must be age 18 or older to begin trading.

Minding the Portfolio:

The most knowledgeable  investors, even the savant Mr. Sarao, learn their trade by studying the financial markets, perfecting their timing, and becoming experts in valuations before they jump in. Giving a ten year old a smartphone and a trading account creates an opposite dynamic- one that mimics a slot machine or lottery.  And, significantly, minding their portfolio and keeping a watch on the ups and downs of the market will also induce a child to spend more time on their phone, and less time doing something else offline. We hear thatt teens check their phone up to 150 times a day, but the sky’s the limit for a newly minted teen with a newly minted brokerage account!

So for this holiday season, yes it’s a novel idea to help your nieces and nephews learn about financial markets and introduce them to fintech apps. Perhaps  ease them into into the digital world with a simple online savings account? Following that,  ask them what companies have a product they personally like to play with and think will continue to grow. Roblox maybe? If that company make sense to you, and you do the homework, make a joint investment in their name.