Firstly, what is WhatsApp?
WhatsApp is a free messaging app that allows users to send messages, voice messages, images, and videos. You can also make calls (including video). You are meant to be 16 to use WhatsApp, but there is no age verification. 33% of 5-7-year-olds, 64% of 8-11-year-olds, and 91% of 12–15-year-olds use messaging apps/sites (Ofcom, 2020). It is therefore highly likely your child or their friends, are using WhatsApp or other messaging apps/sites.
What are they using WhatsApp for?
Mainly to communicate with friends and family. This is either one to one, or in a ‘group’. It’s not uncommon for children to have different groups for different friends. They can chat, call one another, or facetime one another. This can be one to one, or in groups. They can also share videos and photos.
Should I be concerned?
You need to be alert. These statistics suggest most children over 8 years old are using WhatsApp and other messaging apps/sites. It is not without risk, and the age limit is there for a reason. These risks include experiencing cyberbullying, unwanted contact, sexual exploitation, other criminal exploitation, risk of fraud, and access to inappropriate and explicit content. There are also features of WhatsApp that increase the risk. You may have heard of end-to-end encryption which prevents law enforcement or the tech platform from seeing any messages. You can also select an option for messages to disappear after a certain timeframe. This means you won’t be able to see historical conversations and means children can hide conversations from you.
What’s the most likely risk?
All of these risks are real and should be taken seriously. In our experience, the most common is bullying, and accessing/sharing inappropriate and explicit content. Most bullying is group behaviour, and the use of ‘groups’ to communicate can mean trouble. There are rarely agreed ‘group rules’. Children can be supportive and brilliant to one another, but they can also be unkind and get a kick out of embarrassing each other. You also cannot control what others talk about or send around the group. Expect someone to have access to porn sooner rather than later. Or to share content from Youtube or Tiktok that you would rather your child did not watch. It is also likely that at some point your child will be removed from a group. The ‘Admins’ are the people who control who is in the group. It can cause fear and anxiety if you’re removed from the group and you don’t know why and you are unsure when the Admins will let you rejoin
How can I help keep my child safe?
You need to decide what is right for your child depending on their age and maturity. With such high numbers of children using these apps, it can be hard not to be included. Your child may feel they are missing out, particularly in secondary school. If they are going to use WhatsApp, the best way you can keep them safe is to have lots of conversations about how they and others are using WhatsApp, what they have seen, anything that has surprised or worried them, and what the risks might be. Encourage them to be kind to others, and to think carefully about what they share. Talk about how it might make them feel if they are removed from a group, or they see something that scares or upsets them. With younger children, we would recommend regularly looking through their messages. You might be surprised or shocked by what children share, but it’s important to keep your eyes and ears open. We would also recommend keeping phones and devices out of bedrooms. You don’t want your child messaging their friends until midnight on a school night (and that’s a high probability if phone use is unsupervised at night). You also want to have a good understanding of who they are messaging. If you consistently show an interest from a young age, it will feel less intrusive as they grow older.
Isn’t this the job of schools?
Yes and no. While all schools should educate children about online safety, there is no one way to do this. It may be that your school has not talked to children about their use of WhatsApp and other messaging apps. If your child experiences bullying on a messaging app, the school has powers to discipline for behaviour outside of the school day (if the bullying involves other children from the school), but they will all take a different approach. As a parent or carer, you also have a duty to keep your child safe, and that includes closely monitoring how they are using their phones and devices, what they see and share, and setting appropriate boundaries for your child.
Who else can help?
If your child is experiencing bullying – whether face to face or online (including messaging apps)- the Kidscape website has lots of helpful advice and information.
If you want to learn more about keeping your child safe online, sign up for a Kidscape Online Safety for Parents and Carers workshop.