Do Parents Need to Worry About WhatsApp? You Decide.
I actually first heard of WhatsApp from a peer, who was using it to keep in touch with international friends and family. Then another friend mentioned that her whole family—from grandparents to grandkids—uses WhatsApp to communicate with each other as a group. It sounded like a lot of fun! But I wondered why they weren’t texting or using Facebook messenger.
It turns out that (just like every other app) there are both good and bad things about WhatsApp. Let’s take a look at both.
To put us all on the same page …
WhatsApp is a free instant messaging app that lets you send messages, images, and videos to friends. You can have both one-on-one and group conversations with WhatsApp.
And now, let’s rip the Band-Aid off with this one:
For tweens and teens, WhatsApp provides an alternative to Facebook and regular texting. Facebook and texting are likely to be more familiar to parents than WhatsApp.
WhatsApp also provides a tighter-knit “close-friends-only” feeling than some other social media accounts they may have.
This, too, can be an ouch for some kids.
So kids are trying to:
• Distance themselves from apps now popular with adults.
• Choose newer apps that have not monetized so that they’re not seeing ads.
• Move from public-forum style apps to one-on-one or small group messaging.
These seem like a natural kid reactions. Trying to avoid the mainstream and find privacy from the authority figures in their lives.
But these known features are also available to those who would exploit kids.
Some things to note are:
• WhatsApp doesn’t require users to set passwords. So if a friend gets a hold of a kid’s phone, they could send messages to anyone that will appear to be coming from that kid.
• The app is designed to send customizable photos or video clips to anyone in a user’s contact list. This makes it really easy to sext or share inappropriate photos.
• Although users have to be 16 to join, there is no enforcement of this.
• WhatsApp doesn’t provide a clear limit on adult content.
Pay attention to this detail:
WhatsApp recently showed up on a list of fully encrypted apps. Now, this may be a great feature for adults who are worried about online privacy. But you can also see where this feature can be problematic for parents trying to make sure their kids are okay online!
The WhatsApp site says:
Some of your most personal moments are shared on WhatsApp, which is why we built end-to-end encryption into the latest versions of our app. When end-to-end encrypted, your messages and calls are secured so only you and the person you're communicating with can read or listen to them, and nobody in between, not even WhatsApp.
What this means about your kids’ app use
A very common practice is for kids to “meet” someone on an approved app. Then they move the conversation to an encrypted app, like WhatsApp. Then, if the discussion devolves into something inappropriate or exploitative, it’s harder to track, monitor, and help.
Keep this in mind and discuss all of the above with your kids if you choose to let them use WhatsApp. Or talk about all this if you see the app on their devices or listed in their bio lines, comments, or private messages when you are checking their devices.
The bottom lines
I don’t believe that any app is a “bad” app. But I do think that it’s the kids who are taught how to use apps safely and wisely and to talk to the adults in their lives openly and transparently about their online use who are ultimately going to be the safest online.
If your kids are starting to show an interest in the online world, I have a detailed checklist for you to use to get this conversation started. It’s super helpful and you can get it for free RIGHT HERE.
Galit Breen is the author of Kindness Wins, a simple, no-nonsense guide to teaching our kids how to be kind online; the TEDx Talk, “Raising a digital kid without having been one”; the online course Raise Your Digital Kid™; and the Facebook group The Savvy Parents Club. You can get her parents’ guide to their new(ish) digital kid RIGHT HERE.