If your teen has friends and a cell phone, and what teen doesn’t, she is probably using a messaging app in addition to or instead of the text messaging client that came installed on her phone. The most popular is WhatsApp, with 800 million users globally, although Kik Messenger and Facebook messenger may be more popular in the U.S. Is it safe for teens? That depends.
First of all, according to the app’s Terms of Service, the age limit for WhatsApp is 16, though it is largely ignored. In fact, as of October 2014, 8% of U.S. internet users aged 14 – 17 use WhatsApp, and that number is undoubtedly higher now.
Facebook acquired WhatsApp last year or a hefty $18 billion or so, which might lead one to ask why the age limit for WhatsApp (16) is higher than that of Facebook (13). We believe that the reason is that WhatsApp has more and different risks than Facebook, especially for teens. Let’s take a look at how:
Adult content – On Facebook, there are strict rules about what types of content are permitted; on WhatsApp there are few strict prohibitions (i.e. “Adult content must be identified as such” – we’re not even sure what that means). If you’re hoping that human moderators will protect your teen from inappropriate content on WhatsApp, you’re out of luck.
Predator risk – The playbook for a typical predator often follows the same pattern: find a teen on Facebook or Instagram then send a friend request. After you’re friends with the teen, attempt to establish a rapport (what is referred to as “grooming”) and keep communicating. The next step is usually to move the conversation over to a more private platform, like a messaging app.
Sexting – If your teen wants to send a risqué photo or video, he is going to find a way to do it. Since WhatsApp allows customizable picture or video transmission to any user in your address book, it is certainly an option for sexting.
Private, or maybe not – WhatsApp claims that they do not store messages sent and received on their servers, so your teen might think that once a message is sent, that’s as far as it goes. As with any messaging app, messages can be saved by the recipient and retransmitted or posted online. There is always a risk that they will be around forever, and not private at all.
No password – WhatsApp users are not required to set or use a password for the app, so if one of their friends gets their hands on the phone, and the phone is unlocked, there is a risk that a rogue message can be sent.
While there are some risks to teens using WhatsApp, the app itself is not the problem – what your teen is doing with it may be. As a parent you can start by discussing which messaging options your teen is using, how she is using them and who she is communicating with. If any of it sounds like a risk, take it from there, but by all means understand what you’re dealing with when it comes to keeping your teen safe online.
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