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WhatsApp – What’s the big deal?

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​As teachers, support staff, and parents we’ve more than likely been on a number of work, family, and even street WhatsApp Groups.  They can be great for arranging to get together, sharing news, or confirming which bin is getting collected after a bank holiday! 
Given what kids are like with technology, it’s not surprising that they’re on WhatsApp too.  They might even have helped you set up your account.  But have you ever stopped to think about the impact of WhatsApp? Do you know what it can do?  How does it work?  Or that you need to be 16+ to even have an account; even though it’s free!
I was recently privy to a letter from a school regarding WhatsApp and it started like this:
‘We have been made aware of issues arising from WhatsApp groups that have been set up by the students.  The school does not support or condone the use of these groups as communication tools between the pupils.’
This got me thinking.  Is WhatsApp as innocent as I first thought, and should parents be taking a strike line on its use? 
Let’s investigate…
There is no denying that messaging is a necessary part of life.  Platforms play an important role in facilitating a safe and often free method to communicate with parents, guardians, and peers.  However, there are problems that groups such as this create.  It was only during my research for this blog that I found out that WhatsApp has a minimum user age of 16.  
We’ve just acknowledged that it’s a free messaging service and that it is widely used by people below this age, but the user age is set considering the likelihood of unwanted communication from strangers!  Did you know anyone within a WhatsApp group can see the phone number and profile image of other users in the group and you do not have to give consent for your number to be shared?  In practical terms, this means that a child could be added to a group where they do not know all the participants and someone who they do not know would now have access to their phone number and could potentially send them unwanted messages or even images.  This could happen at any time, during the day, or at night!
As parents, it is really important that we monitor our child’s use of any form of social media and restrict it where necessary.  It is harmful to both sleep and mental health to have mobile phones constantly going off or lighting up by the side of the bed.  It would be immensely unpopular and a struggle to enforce but perhaps a rule could be set that all mobile phones are charged downstairs overnight (including your own?!) and that good old-fashioned alarm clocks are used instead?  Again, it would be a challenge, but should we not be setting boundaries for screen time and sticking to them?  We also need to encourage children to talk about their online presence and to come to parents with any concerns they might have.
Any demand on WhatsApp naturally leads to a wider debate about mobile phones, screen time, and social media.  Guidance and indeed much legislation is dated and based in a world that was once dominated by the written or terrestrial world.  As educators, we need to educate not just our children but our politicians to implement new laws to meet the current threats facing our young people.  But first, we need to get up to speed as our children are already several steps ahead.

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