WhatsApp is a popular instant messenger app that also allows voice calls. It counts over 2.5 billion users in 100 different countries, in large part because it works on a variety of operating systems. While WhatsApp technically has a minimum age of 16-years-old, there’s no age-verification process, and it’s not uncommon for younger teens, tweens, and even kids to gain access to the app. If that happens, here’s what you need to know about WhatsApp, how it works, and potential safety risks.
What is WhatsApp?
WhatsApp is an instant messenger app that allows users to send text messages, videos, images, and voice notes in one-on-one and group chats. It also allows voice calls, similar to regular phone calls and video calls. WhatsApp works on a variety of operating systems and can use wifi instead of data (great for keeping those pesky data charges down!). It’s an ideal option for chats between friends and family around the world because, when used on Wi-Fi, international calls are completely free. WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook in 2014.
Why is WhatsApp so popular with teens?
WhatsApp is a popular communication tool for teens—even those younger than the app’s stated age rating of 16+. When someone signs up for WhatsApp, they only have to provide their phone number. There is no age verification process.
Teens like to use WhatsApp because they can chat with friends around the world for free and use the app on Wi-Fi without raising the ire of mom and dad about data overage charges. They also love that WhatsApp allows for large group chats and video calls with up to eight people. Unlike some messenger and video call services, users don’t need to have the same brand of phone.
In some cases, teens and tweens like to use WhatsApp because parents may be less familiar with it, which makes it harder to monitor. There’s also a “disappearing messages” feature, which, if enabled, deletes messages sent in on-one-on or group chats after seven days.
Is WhatsApp safe for teens, tweens, and kids?
WhatsApp is only meant to be used by teens and adults over the age of 16. While WhatsApp is generally considered a safe and secure service, it still carries some risks.
WhatsApp doesn’t store users’ personal information and people can only message or call your teen if they’ve been approved as contacts. However, if your teen has blocked someone, they may still be visible in a group message.
While WhatsApp’s disappearing messages feature provides some sense of security, this can be a false one. While messages will be deleted from chats after seven days, there’s no way to know if someone has screenshotted them, taken a photo of them, or forwarded them to a third party. As a safety measure, teens should assume that any message, photo, or video they send will continue to “live” online, even if it was disappeared by the app.
Like any other messaging or texting service, WhatsApp can be a potential venue for sending and receiving inappropriate images or videos. Because of its group chat functions and ability to easily forward messages to many contacts, it can also be a source of cyberbullying or spreading rumours online.
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Should parents be concerned about WhatsApp’s security?
WhatsApp does have end-to-end encryption, which gives it the same level of security as Apple’s iMessage. This means that the sender and recipient can only view any messages sent through the service. Users don’t have to worry about their messages or calls being intercepted, heard, or viewed by an unintended third party.
It’s important for parents to know teens can enable or disable location sharing in the app’s permissions. This means they can share their live location with individual contacts or larger groups of friends. Parents should discuss safe practices around location sharing, either asking kids to avoid it entirely or only share their location with trusted friends and family.
WhatsApp and online safety
If your teen, tween, or kid wants to use WhatsApp, there are some things you should discuss first. It’s advisable to set expectations around who your child accepts as contacts. For younger kids, this may be just family members. For tweens or teens, perhaps you feel comfortable with them approving close friends or schoolmates. If a user they don’t know requests them as a contact, they should decline.
You should also discuss what types of messages, photos, and videos are appropriate to share online and make sure your teen or tween understands that “disappearing” doesn’t necessarily mean disappeared forever. You should encourage them to alert you if they receive any content they find disturbing or frightening, making sure they know they won’t get in trouble.
Generally, you should monitor WhatsApp the same way you would text messages or DMs on any other social platform.
General tips for staying safe online
WhatsApp can be a great communication tool, especially for friends and families located in different locations around the world. While it’s generally a safe messenger service, it’s important to discuss expectations and reinforce safe online habits before your kid hops online—particularly if they’re under WhatsApp’s recommended 16 years of age.
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This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or its affiliates.