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WhatsApp

WhatsApp is a free instant messaging app with up to 2 billion active monthly users worldwide. Using an internet connection, the app allows users to send messages to contacts added to their WhatsApp account either individually or in group chats. Users must verify their account with a standard mobile phone number to start using the app. There are no parental controls available through the app, but there are a range of privacy settings that users can change to help control who they contact and what information is shared.

Official age rating

The minimum age restriction for WhatsApp users is 16.

As with most other social media platforms, WhatsApp 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

WhatsApp is a messaging app for those looking for convenience as well as enhanced privacy and security. It is especially convenient for users to connect with friends as it syncs to your phone contacts and connects you to their WhatsApp profiles.  End-to-end encryption means it is a secure method for sending or receiving sensitive information or private content and this may affect the behaviour of young people using the app and the content they choose to share.

Potential risks

Content

Like other messaging apps, a lot of personal stories, messages and pictures are shared by users on WhatsApp - these are not moderated. The best way to manage the content your child is exposed to is to ensure they are only connecting with people they know, rather than strangers. Ensure the privacy settings have been set to ‘My contacts only’, rather than ‘Everyone’. It is also possible your child may stumble across inappropriate content in the form of bad language or mature content in their messages. By restricting who your child can access on the platform, your child is less likely to experience language or behaviour that is not suitable for their age.

Connecting with others

As WhatsApp has an age restriction of 16, it does not include any real parental control settings. Like many other social media apps, some children sign up to WhatsApp when they are under the suggested age limit. This is a risk as WhatsApp defaults to ‘Everyone’ on all the privacy settings, which means all users on the platform can view personal information, chat and share images without any filters in place. 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. Remind them to tell you if they have been asked more personal questions or to chat privately using a different app. Changing the privacy settings to sharing only with ‘My contacts’ is recommended.

User behaviour

If your child has their own WhatsApp account, it is important for you and them to be aware of what they share and the impact this will have on their digital footprint. 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. Ensure your child knows it can be difficult to keep ownership of any content once it has been shared online, as content can easily be copied and reposted without their knowledge and can then become difficult to remove from the internet.

Design, data and costs

One of the features of WhatsApp 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 WhatsApp itself can gain access to messages. Whilst this is an attractive security feature for many adults, it has caused problems for law enforcement when trying to access the message records of victims and suspects involved in child exploitation cases. Changing the privacy settings to sharing only with My Contacts is once again recommended.


Tips for keeping your child safe

  • WhatsApp gives users the option to choose who you share your information with by selecting one of the following options: ‘Everyone’, ‘My contacts’ and ‘Nobody’. The app also requires background location for the ‘Live location’ feature, which can be managed on your phone’s settings.

    To set privacy settings:

    • Open the app and choose ‘Settings’ at the bottom of the page.
    • Select ‘Account’ and tap on ‘Privacy’.
    • To limit contact, work through the listed options and choose from either:
      • My Contacts
      • Nobody
      • The changes will be applied immediately.

    To disable location settings:

    • Go to your device settings and scroll down to WhatsApp and select.
    • Tap on ‘Location’ and select ‘Never’ from the listed options.
    • Open WhatsApp and choose ‘Settings’ at the bottom of the page.
    • Select ‘Account’ and tap on ‘Privacy’.
    • Check that the privacy option for ‘Live location’ states ‘None’.
  • WhatsApp default settings means that users can be added to group chats by people outside of their phone contacts without permission. Default settings also means that all photos and videos you receive are automatically saved to your camera roll.

    To change group chat settings:

    • Open the app and select ‘Settings’ at the bottom of the page.
    • Select ‘Account’ and tap on ‘Privacy’.
    • Tap on ‘Groups’ and select ‘My contacts’.
    • Group admins who can’t add you to a group will have the option of inviting you privately instead.

    To leave a group:

    • Go to the group you want to leave either by searching or scrolling through your chat list.
    • Tap on the group name at the top of the page.
    • Scroll down and tap on ‘Exit group’.

    To change photo and video preferences:

    • Open the app and select ‘Settings’ at the bottom of the page.
    • Select ‘Chats’ from the listed options.
    • Toggle off the button next to ‘Save to camera roll’.
  • You can report and block users who may be bothering you 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 contact’.
    • Note that blocking will not remove the contact from WhatsApp. To delete a contact, you will need to delete the contact from your phone’s address book.

    To report 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 ‘Report’.
    • If you select ‘Report and block’, your chat with this person will be deleted.
  • To help limit the pressure for young people to be online and respond to messages straight away, WhatsApp has some settings to help manage usage. ‘Read receipts’ tell other users when you have read a message and ‘Last seen’ refers to the last time a contact used WhatsApp.

    To turn off ‘Read receipts’:

    • Open the app and select ‘Settings’ at the bottom of the page.
    • Select ‘Account’ and tap on ‘Privacy’.
    • Scroll down to ‘Read receipts’ and toggle the button off.

    To turn off ‘Last seen’:

    • Open the app and select ‘Settings’ at the bottom of the page.
    • Select ‘Account’ and tap on ‘Privacy’.
    • Tap on the ‘Last seen’ option and select ‘Nobody’.

Key features and terminology

  • Status

    This allows users to share text, photos and video updates with their contacts that disappears after 24 hours. To send and receive status updates, users need their contact’s number saved in their phone.

    Chats

    The main feature of WhatsApp is the ability to have individual or group chats with contacts saved in your phone.

    Group Admin

    This is the user who sets up a group chat. This is the only user who can add or remove participants and change or add additional group administrators. Individual users can leave a group without needing the ‘Group admin’ to intervene.

    Calls

    Providing you have an internet connection, users can call a contact on WhatsApp. This can be either an audio or video call with an individual or groups of up to 8 people.

    Camera

    WhatsApp allows users to share photos and videos with their contacts. This can be either through access to the camera or by sharing photos and videos from the camera roll on the phone.

    Voice Notes

    Instead of sending text messages, users can record voice messages by holding down the microphone icon in the chat function.

    Emoji

    This term refers to the small cartoon faces with various expressions users can send to each other. The list of Emoji options now includes people, buildings, animals, foods, symbols and more.

    Gifs

    As well as sending text and emojis, users can also send Gifs to their contacts. A Gif is an animated image without sound.

    One View Image

    This allows users to send an image to be seen once. Once viewed it is automatically deleted from both devices.

General tips

End-to-end encryption can make the app particularly appealing to those who wish to communicate securely. However, this feature could 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 WhatsApp to communicate with other users that they know and trust.