Tech and Science

Snapchat’s friend ranking feature is drawing criticism from tech and mental health experts

Drama, jealousy and heartbreak can make teenage years difficult.

Now experts are warning that a new feature on the popular social media app Snapchat could add to the fear.

The “Solar System” feature on Snapchat+ ranks users’ eight best friends based on how often they communicate with them on the app. For example, Mercury would be your best friend since it is the plane closest to the Sun, while Neptune would be at the end of the order.

“It’s a big concern for a lot of parents and educators because we know that this can actually significantly worsen a child’s mental health,” said technology expert Amber Mac.

“Awareness of how children use social media has increased. We also know that many children suffer from anxiety and depression.”

The feature is one of several features available on Snapchat+ designed to appeal to more users. But critics say the ranking system can fuel insecurities within virtual and real-life friendships at a crucial developmental stage for young people.

“One of the big things they do is discover who they are through their friendships and connections,” said Rebecca Rackow, director of advocacy, research and public policy development at the Canadian Mental Health Association.

“It’s the nature of nature that we figure out who we are by the person we spend time with.”

Snapchat+’s solar system can give users, particularly pre-teens and teens, a “false sense” of where they are in their social group, Rackow said.

Each person’s solar system is private. Snapchat+ users can see where they end up in their friend’s solar system, but they can’t see who else is ahead or behind them in digital orbit. According to a Snapchat spokesperson, the feature is not a list of friends sorted by popularity or preference.

Critics point out that the feature doesn’t take into account the time a person spends on the app or the quality of conversations they have.

“You might talk to someone a lot just because they’re available, but Snapchat considers the person you talk to the most to be your best friend,” said Alec Couros, a professor of educational technology and media at the University of Regina.

Couros said the solar system feature is similar to Snapchat’s free version’s emoji system, which places different emojis next to a person’s top contacts in the app.

“We have to be really careful,” Couros said.

“Over time, they (Snapchat users) may believe these things and it will shape their relationships in a different way, or it will destroy relationships because of jealousies and insecurities.”

The Solar System feature is only available to Snapchat+ subscribers and can be easily disabled in Settings.

According to the company, only about one percent of all Snapchat users subscribe to the paid version, and the majority of those users are over 18 years old.

Teens who spoke to CTV News didn’t have Snapchat+ but do use Snapchat.

“It’s my favorite app. I use them several times a day,” said 14-year-old Perla Massier.

Massier uses the app to send text messages and photos to her friends. She said her “best friends” on the app closely match her best friends in real life.

“It’s just an easy way to connect with friends and stay connected,” she said.

There are positive aspects of the popular app that Rackow says shouldn’t go unnoticed.

“It’s important to be part of a community and have a sense of belonging,” Rackow said.

“The idea of ​​being able to look at a circle of supporters, like who are the people who would actually notice if I posted something that said I was in trouble?”

Rackow said more conversations need to be had between young people, parents and teachers to identify potential impacts of social media and any restrictions that should be put in place when using mobile apps.

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