Snapchat is to roll out changes to its popular app after the Evening Express revealed a flaw that could unwittingly allow people to speak directly to primary school children.
Last Saturday, our investigation found evidence of children from Torry Academy, Turriff Academy and Bramble Brae Primary School publishing their own usernames on the social media app, allowing anyone to talk to them.
Aberdeen Central MSP Kevin Stewart has praised the EE for raising awareness of the flaw, which he described as “extremely dangerous” and set up an online petition calling for the tech firm to make it impossible for people to search for schools on the app.
He said: “I’d like to applaud the Evening Express for highlighting this anomaly in the Snapchat app.
“This is investigative journalism at its very best.
“I think the pressure the Evening Express put on made other people take (the fight) up as well.”
Currently, Snapchat users can search for schools using the public groups function. That then shows any Snapchat message posted at or near a school, including images and videos of pupils.
Youngsters sometimes post their username within those messages, allowing strangers to “add” them and begin a conversation.
— Kevin Stewart MSP (@KevinStewartSNP) January 29, 2018
The SNP MSP’s petition, which has attracted more than 800 signatures, says: “Currently, users are able to search for schools and view public posts from within and around the school.
“This presents an obvious risk to children as dangerous individuals could identify the school they attend and possibly direct inappropriate actions towards them or lead to even worse dangerous situations. Snapchat must remove schools from locations to search.”
On Thursday afternoon, members of Aberdeen City Council’s education and children’s services committee voted unanimously in favour of a motion instructing the council’s chief executive Angela Scott to write to the Silicon Valley firm outlining its concerns.
The committee also agreed to ask the council to highlight the matter to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) to seek its support.
After the meeting, Aberdeen SNP group educ-ation spokes-man, Cllr David Came-ron, who is a committee member and tabled the motion, said: “After being made aware of this feature on Snapchat I felt it was essential the council should take urgent action about this.”
The issue was also raised in the Scottish Parliament when Aberdeenshire East SNP MSP Gillian Martin tabled a motion showing support for the petition.
Fourteen MSPs have now backed the motion.
Mrs Martin said: “It is really important that we continue to have conversations with our children and that there is sound advice out there for parents too on what is available online for people to see.”
A Snapchat spokeswoman today confirmed to the Evening Express that changes would be made to its app.
She said: “We know that our work is never done when it comes to the safety of our users and we continually strive to improve our service.
“We are rolling out a block on ‘primary schools’ and all other related terms in both search and map search results. We always encourage feedback on how we can do better and we are grateful that this was brought to our attention.”
It is understood the roll out is being done area by area rather than all at once as technical problems can sometimes arise if Snapchat makes big changes to the app in one go.
Mr Stewart said: “I am pleased that Snapchat is introducing a block on the searching of primary schools in their public stories function. That is a step in the right direction. However, I believe that they should do the same thing and introduce a block for secondary schools.
“If it is technically possible to block primary schools then you would imagine the same method can be applied to blocking secondary schools.”
He added: “I really believe this is required to reduce risk to children and to prevent danger to them.”
Mr Stewart said he had written to every school and parent teacher association in his constituency to make them aware of the issue and would keep campaigning until a full block on schools was in place. Snapchat has previously said it works with the NSPCC children’s charity on child protection issues.
An NSPCC Scotland spokesman said: “It’s right that Snapchat has recognised concerns over this feature and started work to remove it from the app. We are in regular contact with social media providers including Snapchat to discuss how they can better ensure child safety.
“While it is vital that parents have discussions with their children about their online lives, it is pleasing to see positive steps taken by social media providers to do more to protect young users.”