Is WhatsApp Safe for Kids? Here’s What Parents Need to Know

By on Mar 07, 2020

We may be talking about the TikTok app in our public circles, but there’s another app — just as widely used — that kids are hoping parents’ won’t ask too many questions about. That’s because they can use the messaging app WhatsApp to talk privately with friends, exchange content and videos, and (hopefully) fly under the parentals’ radar.

What is WhatsApp?

WhatsApp is a downloadable app that uses your phone’s internet connection (wifi) to send messages, photos, videos, or files. It also allows users to make real-time video calls (much like iOS’ FaceTime). The big perk: WhatsApp can be used by connecting to any wifi so users can avoid using up minutes or texting fees. If you travel internationally, using WhatsApp is a popular way to avoid expensive international calling charges.

Why do kids love WhatsApp?

It’s easy, it’s fun, it’s free. WhatsApp Messenger lets kids send text messages, videos, photos, and audio messages as well as make video calls to friends without message limits or fees. Oh, and so far, it’s ad free, which is a plus.

It’s a stealth chatting app. WhatsApp is a popular way to create group chats (up to 256 people) that parents won’t necessarily think to check. Often kids will meet someone on one app such as Snapchat or Instagram and move to WhatsApp because they feel its less public and less regulated by parents. Like any other app, it can also be hidden behind decoy or vault apps to avoid detection.

WhatsApp web
You can’t miss the bright green WhatsApp icon on your child’s phone or in the desktop application folder. ©WhatsApp

It has cool features. WhatsApp has a broadcast feature that allows a user to send out a message to a group of people that can then only respond to the sender. The Status Feature enables users to send disappearing photos, videos, and GIFs, much like the fun features on Instagram and Snapchat.

WhatsApp hacks keep it fun. Kids love workarounds and cool functionality hacks they can use to enhance their WhatsApp experience. WhatsApp hacks can be found online with a quick Google search. Hacks help users understand how to do fun things such as schedule messages, create fake conversations, retrieve deleted messages, turn off Read receipts, make a Broadcast List, and formatting hacks that will help their account stand out.

There’s a perception of secrecy/security. WhatsApp has end-to-end encryption built-in, which means any texts, photos, or videos exchanged between users are encrypted (scrambled code) and assumed to be secure between the people communicating. WhatsApp has set itself apart from other chat apps in this area. No server stores messages after they are delivered. Not even WhatsApp can read, view, or listen to the chats, which gives users a sense of privacy and security. However, as we are reminded daily, WhatsApp, like every app is vulnerable to hacks, scams, and breaches.

What are the risks?

Inappropriate, secretive content. As with any app, the biggest concern is in the way kids and others use the app. WhatsApp (like any messaging app) allows anyone to create an account. Kids can be exposed to inappropriate content and exchange inappropriate content with others. As with any app, kids will also use acronyms or slang to hide risky behavior.

Strangers. A lot of people use WhatsApp, including those with harmful intentions. Users may assume group chats are closed to strangers since group members need a digital link to join. However, group chat links can be copied by group members and shared with anyone who can then click and join without any vetting.

Cyberbullying. Group texts are a big reason kids use WhatsApp. They can have groups as large as 250 kids. So, if a rumor, mean comment is shared or conflict erupts, situations can get intense very quickly and easily spill beyond the WhatsApp environment.

Privacy. While kids believe WhatsApp safely encrypt conversations, it does not protect them from people taking and sharing screenshots. Private discussions and photos can also be downloaded. Another threat to privacy is the way the app itself collects data of its users, which can be reviewed in its Privacy Policy and User Data section.

Scams and malware. WhatsApp is not immune to the typical scams that target social apps. The Facebook-owned app has had issues with spyware, catfishing, phishing, money requests, and fraudulent job opportunities — all in a quest to get users to hand over their personal information or assets.

Fake news. Because WhatsApp allows a user to chat in a group of up to 250 people, it’s easy for information to go viral quickly, even that information isn’t accurate. More recently, fake news originated on WhatsApp that incited panic around Coronavirus conspiracies and the 2018 mob killing in India.

Family Safety Tips

WhatsApp web
The WhatsApp interface. ©WhatsApp

Download and discuss the app. WhatsApp is easy to download and understand (simple texting interface). Once you know the basics, discuss the pros and cons of WhatsApp with your child. Ask your child to walk you through his or her app to show you how they use it.

Some questions to consider asking might be:

What do you like most about WhatsApp?
What kind of group chats are you a part of?
What kind of media do you mostly receive and send?
Are there any people in your group chats you don’t know?
Are your location and account settings as secure as they can be?
Have you shared personal information or your phone number?
Has any situation made you feel uncomfortable while on the app?

Guide younger users. For younger children or new WhatsApp users (age requirement is 13), consider creating a private WhatsApp group just for your family. Teach your kids to create a safe profile, maximize safety features, block strangers, report bullying, and how to safely share pictures, videos, and communicate. Use this time, teach them the upside of the app and the risks.

Monitor devices, screen time, and behavior. There are a lot of issues to consider and pay attention to when your kids use messaging apps. First, to monitor content, consider security software as well as filtering software. Second, pay attention to screen time and your child’s ability to balance technology use. Third, monitor behavior. Messaging apps connect kids to groupthink, a variety of content, and several emotional danger zones. Technology monitoring includes paying particular attention to your child’s emotional and physical health, friend groups, academic performance, and sleep habits.

Talk about privacy settings. Encourage your child to maximize settings and use the two-step verification option that allows a custom PIN for security against breaches and hacks. Privacy settings will allow users to choose Everyone, My Contacts, and Nobody. Review profile information and omit any personal information (age, phone number, other account links, school name, hometown).

Control location sharing. When location sharing is turned on, the images your child shares on WhatsApp will also show his or her exact location when the photo was taken. Be aware of this and consider keeping location turned off.

Avoid strangers and strange links. Once a person outside of your child’s known circle has his or her phone number, they can send any content directly unless (and until) they are blocked. They can catfish, scam, or groom WhatsApp users. Talk with your child about the importance of only chatting with known, trusted people and to block messages from strangers. Messages from strangers could contain explicit content, malware, spam, or phishing scam.

Should your child be on WhatsApp? As long as your child is only connected to trusted people (and has some form of monitoring), this can be a relatively safe social app that echos the features of most other apps. However, every family and every child is different, and whether or not your child is allowed to use the app is a personal decision. If your child is active on the app with your approval, one way to help them navigate the danger zones is to keep the safety conversation on-going and honest. Your guidance is crucial. You’ve got this parent!

About the Author

Toni Birdsong

Toni Birdsong is a Family Safety Evangelist for McAfee. She is an author, speaker, and cyber savvy mom of two teenagers (much to their dismay). As a family safety evangelist for McAfee, she focuses on online safety and often speaks to educators, parents, and teens about dodging the dangers online. She is the co-owner of ...

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