Everything a Parent Needs to Know About WHATSAPP
A man named Neil Papworth is credited with sending history’s first text message nearly a quarter century ago. In 1992, Papworth used a PC to send the message “Merry Christmas” to the phone of his friend, Richard Jarvis, who was with him at their company holiday party.
Over the following two decades, the humble text message — or SMS (short message service) — endured as the simplest and most popular form of written phone-to-phone communication.
But social media networks and standalone app developers have created new platforms for sending and receiving messages, and the enduring SMS is losing ground to new messaging applications.
One app in particular reigns as the new king of mobile messaging: WhatsApp. WhatsApp dominates modern messaging, beating even the mighty Facebook Messenger app by at least 100 million messages sent every month.
For teens, WhatsApp provides an alternative to Facebook and their phone’s native texting app, both of which are likely to be far more familiar to their parents than WhatsApp. Teens are flocking to WhatsApp because it gives them the privacy and freedom to exchange any messages they want with whomever they want. What they may not understand, however, is that WhatsApp also provides the same capabilities to those who would exploit them.
So, What Exactly is WhatsApp?
WhatsApp is a messaging service that lets users exchange unlimited text, audio, photo and video messages over the Internet. Users like it because it doesn’t have ads, it costs nothing to use and it works on the same data plan used for email and web browsing.
Anyone with a smartphone can send messages without paying for SMS plans, and can create groups and share messages across a wide range of platforms. Shortly after Facebook purchased the service for $16 billion in 2014, an early investor told USA Today that “WhatsApp has done for messaging what Skype did for voice and video calls.”
According to Bloomberg Business, WhatsApp doesn’t replace other platforms used by teenagers, but complements them. Teens turn to WhatsApp to communicate and to share photos and videos in smaller, more selective groups than platforms like Instagram, YouTube and Facebook allow.
So, just how popular is WhatsApp? The statistics tell the story:
- As of 2015, 50 percent more messages are sent using WhatsApp than SMS.
- Roughly 630 million people use WhatsApp every day.
- 1 million new users register for a WhatsApp account every single day.
- The average active user uses WhatsApp for 195 minutes per week.
With numbers like that’s, it’s not surprising that an astounding 30 billion WhatsApp messages are sent every day, including 700 million photos, 200 million voice messages and 100 million video messages.
When it comes to selfies, the American teens’ favorite past time? Over 27 percent of all selfies shared on social media come from WhatsApp!
Teens and WhatsApp
As mentioned above, WhatsApp is wildly popular among teens, with the majority of WhatsApp users being under 25. This is particular true internationally — in Spain, a study as far back as 2013 found that 76% of children between 11 and 14 use WhatsApp on a regular basis – despite the minimum age requirement of 16 or older.
In the United States, it’s only just catching on. But there has been a fast-growing trend of teens flocking away from social media juggernauts like Facebook, and turning to lesser-known apps like WhatsApp. The key reasons for this trend include…
- Trying to distance themselves from apps now popular with adults.
- Choosing newer apps that have not monetized – meaning no ads!
- Moving from public-forum style apps to one-on-one messaging.
This itself seems like a natural teen reaction: trying to avoid the mainstream and find privacy from the authority figures in their lives.
But that also means that they may be forging ahead into uncharted — and potentially dangerous — digital waters.
The Five Primary Dangers Facing Teens WhatsApp
There are five primary pitfalls facing teens who use WhatsApp:
- WhatsApp does not require users to set passwords, a feature that could present a unique danger to teens. If a friend — or not-so-friendly acquaintance — gets a hold of a teen’s phone, they could send rogue messages to anyone that appear to be from the teen.
- The application is designed to send customizable photos or video clips to anyone in a user’s contact list, providing the perfect platform for sexting and sharing inappropriate photos.
- Although users have to be 16 to join, there is no enforcement mechanism for the age requirement, and younger teens use the app simply by fudging the date when they enter their birthday.
- While Facebook, YouTube and other familiar networks impose strict limitations on posting inappropriate content such as nudity or pornography. With the exception of a vaguely worded request to label inappropriate content, WhatsApp provides no such limit on adult content.
- Lastly, the real danger with WhatsApp goes well beyond passwords and pictures. Online predators often use a technique called “grooming,” where they identify and target vulnerable or unprotected teens on “safe” platforms like Facebook. Once they’ve established a connection, developed a rapport and made the naive teenager feel comfortable with their new “friend,” they suggest moving the conversation over to a more private messaging platform like WhatsApp. Here, the discussion often devolves into something inappropriate or becomes exploitative. WhatsApp is even more attractive to predators because it allows users to share their contacts and even their location with other users.
What Parents Need to Know
Here are a few tips and reminders for parents whose teens use the app:
- Only those with a WhatsApp account can use the service to send and receive messages.
- Teens can only send and receive messages from people on their contact list.
- WhatsApp has a location feature that reveals the exact spot on a map where any given photograph or video was taken. It is important for teens — at least most teens in most circumstances — to know why it is important to turn this feature off!
- An indicator tells your teen’s contacts when he or she is online — there is currently no way to change this setting.
There are, however, WhatsApp privacy settings that you can customize:
- Profile: The default setting allows any WhatsApp user to see your teen’s profile photo and status, as well as his or her last read and last seen messages, but this can be changed.
- Share settings: Share settings can be set to “everyone” “my contacts” or “nobody”. Teens should set their share settings to “my contacts.”
- Blocking contacts: Show your teen how to block or delete users and how to report inappropriate messaging to avoid getting messages from people they don’t know or trust.
For full details on WhatsApp privacy settings, visit our article on how to manage privacy settings on social media.
WhatsApp is yet another application that is wildly popular with teens, but largely unfamiliar to their parents.
Parents should monitor their teen’s WhatsApp usage, but — as with every aspect of their online lives — the best defense is open dialogue. Online predators thrive when teens are ill-informed and resentful of their parents. Monitor your children’s use of WhatsApp, but explain why you’re doing it — and acknowledge their good behavior just as passionately as you do their bad behavior.