This morning, our editor Liz Gumbinner talked to the TODAY Show about the pitfalls of SnapChat, the most popular app you’ve probably never heard of. But you should. Especially if you’re the parent of a teen.

Also known as the “sexting app,” this popular app (more downloads than even Instagram!) allows the user–with an average age of 13-24–to send a photo with text or a drawing over it to a contact, then set the photo to self-destruct in 10 seconds or less. The problems? Well, the promise of photos with no evidence can easily lure kids into more risky behavior than they might normally take.

Unfortunately however, the contact has the ability to take a screenshot. And then what he does with that screenshot is out of your hands. The last thing you want is for your teen to make a silly mistake that ends up as a compromising photo or embarrassing text that spreads all over the internet, and has potentially long-term consequences.

Our top 4 tips for handling SnapChat if you’re a parent with a tween or teen:

1. Research the app yourself so you know what you’re talking about.
The great news is, now that parents are aware of SnapChat (even if it’s a year later), you’re far more armed and ready than you were before. It’s free for both Android and iOS, and the cutesie graphics are definitely meant to appeal to the Jr High set, not the set.

snapchat app

2. Talk to your kids about the internet, privacy and safety early and often.
It’s never too early to start. The very best thing you can do is keep the lines of communication open so you know what apps your kids are using and how. It’s the smartest way to minimize risky behavior in general.

In fact, we love this quote from a friend who’s the mother of a 12 year-old: “I love that my daughter first taught me about SnapChat, and anticipated my concern by telling me she knows exactly how people can misuse it and she would never send inappropriate photos!”

(Props to you and your daughter, mama!)

3. Decide whether to ban the app
With younger teens, you have more control over the content on your kids’ phones and their internet usage, but we’ve found that kids are happy to use it in groups through friends’ phones. You know your kid best, of course; but sometimes letting your child make the choice for herself not to use it, will be far more effective.

4. Talk about the right way to use it.
If you think your child (like our friend’s, above) is capable of using it for its so-called intended use–sharing silly spontaneous photos with friends that disappear–discuss the limits. Make sure they’re only sharing with friends and family they know, and nothing that is embarrassing or compromising. Not to be alarmist, but you never know what creeps are out there pretending to be kids. Or what creeps are kids themselves, trying to convince your kids to do something unsavory. They might even be grabbing screenshots of that so-called limited time photo which now isn’t limited time after all.

snapchat screenshot

Also, make sure that your child tells you right away if she’s ever feeling coerced into sending a photo that makes them feel uncomfortable so you can take action. Let’s be honest, part of being a teen is making mistakes and learning from them. They’re not any different than we were in that sense. We just hope that in this age of “the internet is forever,” that they’re making mostly the kinds of mistakes that we can all laugh about later. -Liz + Kristen

Catch Cool Mom Tech on the TODAY Show discussing SnapChat via this link.

[images via snapchat, montage via NYT]