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Signal is a free instant messaging app that allows its users to communicate via text, video and audio calls. The app allows users to send messages or make calls to their phone contacts either individually or in group chats. Users can use the built-in image editing tool when sending pictures or designing encrypted sticker packs, and they can even customise alerts for each contact. A key feature of Signal is the privacy it offers to its users, where conversations are kept secure through end-to-end encryption and the app developers make the promise of no advertising or tracking. Users need a UK mobile number to set up an account and it now allows users to change their mobile number without it having an effect on their existing chats and messages.
Official age rating
The minimum age restriction for Signal users is 13 however, Signal does not have any rigorous age verification methods.
Find out more about age ratings in our ‘A parent and carer’s guide to age ratings of apps and games’.
How children and young people use the app
Signal is a popular messaging app for those looking for enhanced privacy and security. Users can communicate in a variety of ways, including texts and video calls, with the security of end-to-end encryption. There are several interesting and fun features that young people can use to connect with each other, including stickers, ‘View once media’ and ‘Disappearing messages’. The use of end-to-end encryption means some users feel it is more secure for sending or receiving sensitive information or private content.
Key features and terminology
The main feature of Signal is the ability to have individual or group chats with contacts saved on your phone.
This refers to preventing any third party from viewing or reading a message. Only the sender and receiver of the message can access its content. End to end encryption means that the message is encrypted before it leaves the senders device and can only be decrypted once it reaches its destination. This means that data on a server cannot be accessed by hackers because the data is encrypted.
Providing you have an internet connection or data allowance, users can call a contact on Signal for free. This can be either an audio or video call with an individual or groups of up to 1000 people.
As well as sending text and emojis, users can also send stickers to their contacts. Users can create their own sticker packs to use within messages.
Enabling ‘Sealed senders’ allows incoming messages from non-contacts and people you have not shared your profile with.
Users can set a timer for messages to be deleted. Intended for users to be able to send information they don’t want others to keep for a long time (such as personal information) and to reduce data usage.
This feature allows you to send messages to yourself and is mostly used as a reminder tool.
Users can create a group link to share with their friends to invite them to join a group. This can also be a QR code.
You can pin a chat which means it will always appear at the top of your chat list.
This allows users to send individual photos and videos that are automatically removed from a conversation thread after they have been viewed.
Like other messaging apps, a lot of personal stories, messages and pictures are shared by users on Signal. It is possible your child may stumble across inappropriate content in the form of bad language or mature content in their messages. Features like ‘Disappearing messages’ and ‘View once media’ may be used as a way of sharing inappropriate content on the app so you should monitor these. By restricting who your child can access on the platform, your child is less likely to experience language or content that is not suitable for their age. However, it should be acknowledged that your child may still be exposed to inappropriate content by their known contacts.
Connecting with others
As Signal uses your phone’s contacts to allow conversations to take place, it is likely users will know the people they are connecting within the first instance. However, as users can be added to groups with up to 1000 people, it is important that your child knows the risks involved in group chats with people they may not know. This can be managed through the account settings. Speak to your child about the risks of connecting with strangers and explain the importance of not sharing any personal or identifiable information on their profile or within chats. Encourage them to tell you if they have been asked more personal questions or to chat privately using a different app.
If your child is using Signal, it is important for them to be aware of what they share and the impact this will have on their digital footprint. Some users believe that because it is an encrypted service, they cannot be held accountable for what they share – or have it traced back to them. However, young people need to be aware that this is not true and that any content that they post or share could leave a digital footprint. Remind your child that other people can easily screen shot and widely share the content they post. Have a conversation with them to help them understand what is and is not appropriate for them to share and discuss the various ways they can protect themselves by sharing with their contacts only. The ‘Disappearing message’ feature within Signal presents a risk, as users may feel disinhibited and inclined to share content that they assume cannot be viewed again. It is important to explain to users that it is possible to screen-shot content, which can be saved and widely shared. Encourage them to think about the content they create and share by considering whether they would be happy for everyone they know to see it.
Design, data and costs
One of the features of Signal is its use of end-to-end encryption. This means that only those with access to the phones of the sender and receiver of a message can access them - not even Signal itself can gain access to messages. Whilst this is an attractive security feature for many adults, it can cause problems for law enforcement when trying to access the message records of victims and suspects involved in child exploitation cases. Talk regularly with your child about who they are connecting with on Signal and make sure they know they can come to you if they have any concerns.
Tips for keeping your child safe
Whilst Signal does have some privacy settings, you are unable to set your profile to private. Instead, explore the privacy settings on the account to check they are suitable for your child.
To view the privacy settings:
- Go to your profile icon in the top left corner of the page and select ‘Settings’.
- Choose ‘Privacy’ and work through the options listed.
- Scroll to the bottom of the page and tap ‘Advanced’ for more settings.
- Any changes made will be applied immediately.
Signal does have some settings that allow users to manage interactions and content. If unknown users send you a message via a group chat, ‘Message requests’ give you the option to block, delete, or accept the message. This occurs by default, as do many of the other settings. Explore the privacy settings on the account to check they are suitable for your child.
To check ‘Sealed sender’ settings:
- Select your profile icon and select ‘Settings’ and ‘Privacy’.
- Scroll down to ‘Advanced’ and then ‘Sealed sender’.
- By default, these options should be toggled off. It is recommended that these remain off to prevent non-contacts from contacting your child.
To check ‘Disappearing messages’ settings:
- Select your profile and choose ‘Privacy’.
- Scroll down to ‘Disappearing messages’.
- Tap ‘Default timer for new chats’ and ensure this option is toggled off.
- Note: this option will only be for any new chats started after you have changed the setting and will not apply to existing chats.
To disable the ‘Disappearing messages’ feature on existing chats:
- Go to the chat you wish to check the settings for.
- Click on the person/chat name to open up the chat settings for just this chat.
- Ensure the option for ‘Disappearing message’ is set to ‘Off’.
Users can report and block other users who may be bothering them or behaving inappropriately on the platform.
To block a user:
- Go to the user you want to block either by searching or scrolling through your chat list.
- Tap on their name at the top of the page.
- Scroll down through the options and select ‘Block user’.
- Select your profileand choose ‘Settings’ then ‘Privacy’.
- Navigate to ‘Blocked’ and tap ‘Add blocked user’.
- Select the user you want to block and select ‘Block’.
To help limit the pressure for young people to be online and respond to messages straight away, Signal has some settings to help manage usage. ‘Read receipts’ tell other users when you have read a message and ‘Typing indicators’ lets you know when others are typing a message to you.
To disable ‘Read receipts’ and ‘Typing indicators’:
- Go to your profile and select, ‘Settings’then choose ‘Privacy’.
- Navigate to ‘Messaging’.
- Toggle off the options for ‘Read receipts’ and ‘Typing indicators’.
If your child uses Signal, talk to them about the risks of allowing the ‘Disappearing messages’ and ‘View once’ features. Explain that although it may feel safe to share something personal about themselves, any text or picture they share can be saved and stored to be shared with others. They should never share anything that they would not be happy for others to see.
‘Disappearing messages’ and the end-to-end encryption can make the app appealing to those who want to have no consequences for their actions and behaviours. The app may therefore be used by adults who want to develop a relationship with a child to potentially harm or abuse them. Try to make sure your child is only using Signal to communicate with other users that they know and trust.