How Snapchat helps me connect with the teens in my life

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 Photo: Getty Images

Like most adults, I loathe seeing teenagers with their faces buried in their phones. Why don't they read a book, write a song, go outside? Why don't they engage in conversation? But it turns out that meaningful interactions don't always happen face to face. Recently, I've become more like those teens.

Now every morning when I check my phone, I scroll past the unrelenting thread of news headlines, emails and texts until I see a cream-colored notification badge from Snapchat, an app that lets users send photos and videos that vanish in seconds.

"From Hope," it says, a twinkling magenta heart and a mauve crystal ball following her name.

"Press for more," it beckons. With a click, I uncover an unfiltered glimpse into my 14-year-old niece's life. A recent morning chat from Hope was a still image of her brother Cole grinning over his cereal. His smile was angelic and mischievous. Another time, Hope sent the view outside her window: a snow-coated patio and icicles hanging from the trees, with no sign of melting. Unlike the snow that lingers, frozen, my niece's messages emit warmth, then instantly melt away.

A year and a half ago, when I moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles to live with my boyfriend, Alan, one of my biggest worries was leaving Hope. We had become like sisters.

From Los Angeles, I Facetimed her. We'd start out chatting, but eventually she'd leave her phone on the table. Instead of her face, I'd see her pencil working out long division, or her fingers typing an essay. When we texted, our dialogue felt flat. She'd respond with one word, or not at all.

Alan has three kids who stay with us half of the week, and two of them are teenage girls, so I wondered if Hope felt betrayed. I also worried that I wouldn't be able forge the kind of relationship I had with Hope with the new teens in my life.

One day Alan's 14-year-old daughter, Malia, grabbed my phone, saying she had a surprise for me. Minutes later, I had a Snapchat account. I was skeptical, but I added Hope, as well as Alan's older daughter, Annick, and my nephews.

Since then, we have frequently shared slices of our everyday lives - or "instant expression," as Snapchat chief executive Evan Spiegel puts it. According to Bloomberg News, more than 150 million people use Snapchat every day. Now I know why. Videos and photos fly in - of Hope dressed up for a school dance, of a theatre class at Malia's school, of my nephews Drew and Luke DJing in a basement. I reply right away - with a photo of my cat, or palm trees, or a doughnut, just whatever I'm doing, and a question or a comment. The conversations go on.

(As I write, Malia sends me a chat. It's a video of her clowning around with family friends. Wearing Snapchat's signature puppy dog face lens, their tongues fall out of their mouths. Hearing them giggle makes me laugh. I send a photo back, with the caption: "They're so cute! Glad you're having fun.")

Malia has engaged me in a Snapchat streak, an exchange of disappearing pictures and captions that goes on for consecutive days. There is no prize for duration; the reward is in the connection.

My streak with Malia began a month before she and her siblings travelled with me to visit family in Philadelphia for Thanksgiving. She was dreading the flight, and she has refused to board airplanes in the past, even after getting as far as the airport. But I wonder - had it not been for our steady Snapchat messaging, of me promising the fun things we'd do, of her expressing her fears and of me assuaging them - would she have gotten on that plane?

When she arrived, her Snapchat story sprang to life, a seconds-long video of her white Converse shoes walking along at the airport, with the caption, "Proud of myself." Annick's story showed her younger brother, Degefe, 8, smiling and hugging the stuffed brown poop emoji he brought to show Cole (Cole has a pink one.) On Thanksgiving, Hope stayed up late with Alan's girls. They were already friends, because they had added one another on Snapchat before they met in person.

As Snapchat continues to strengthen communication among us, I'm learning that preserving what we're sharing isn't the point. It's the living moment that matters. From my perspective as a 35-year-old, seeing teenage life as it happens cultivates a better overall relationship. These moments show life as it is - genuine, goofy and ephemeral. These teens aren't striving to depict themselves as perfect, because once shared, the images disappear. No one keeps score of who's messaging whom. There is no fishing for likes, no room for fake praise. It's just conversation, and connection.

I asked Alan's girls if he should open a Snapchat account, and their response was a resounding "No!" That makes me wonder why I am granted access. Maybe because I am new, maybe because I am younger. Maybe I am on borrowed time.

(As I write this, Hope sends me a video of her mom, Shayna, bobbing her head out of sync to rap music. She's making faces in color-changing sunglasses. Hope's plea: "Help me.")

I admit that sometimes, like Shayna, I shamelessly face-swap with my cat or vomit rainbows on my account. These offences could result in a beloved teen removing me from their Snapchat. But for now, my exchange with Hope continues. And it's the No. 1 reason I look forward to burying my face in my phone.

The Washington Post