WhatsApp’s disappearing messages and child safety

With social media and instant messaging apps being more readily available to children, concerns relating to child safety are inevitably raised due to the risk of cyber bullying and online child grooming. There are many positives that come from the use of social media such as the ability for young people to connect with friends and demonstrate their creativity, but with this comes the battle many parents face with trying to ensure their child’s experience is both safe and fun.

The news of a new ‘disappearing messages’ function on WhatsApp has unsurprisingly faced complaints and criticism. The new function allows users to send text, images or videos that will automatically delete after a certain amount of time and so any parent reviewing the account would not be able to view the content of the message sent or received.  Criticism of this function has included the suggestion that children may feel they have an ‘unfounded sense of privacy’ and the difficulty in safeguarding children from having inappropriate discussions which cannot later be recovered. There are also the following risks to note:

  • Children may use the function to share intimate images/videos and have inappropriate conversations with the misconception that they will be automatically deleted and irrecoverable;
  • Disappearing messages could hinder any future police investigations due to essentially removing evidence of inappropriate messaging and image sharing;
  • It can be used to discuss illegal activity such as drug use or underage drinking amongst young people;
  • The feature is likely to increase peer on peer abuse and online bullying due to the low risk of being caught and the ability to ‘hide’ the wrongdoing.

Safeguarding professionals in identifying these risks, have set out to warn parents/guardians of the dangers of the new WhatsApp feature and have compared it’s likeness to Snapchat which was also criticised for the risk of children sending or being witness to inappropriate content. Recommendations have also been made when it comes to safeguarding, with adults being advised to talk to young people in their care about the use of disappearing messages and how all messages/images posted (whether using the function or not) can still be saved. Parents/guardians are also being advised to support children in their understanding of what they should not share with others and to encourage them to speak out should they ever feel uncomfortable online.

Given the use of similar functions across other social media applications such as Facebook with their ‘Secret Conversations’ feature, it is likely that we will see safeguarding advice on technology providing increased guidance on secret/disappearing messaging.

Written by Nicole Clough, Paralegal at BLM nicole.clough@blmlaw.com

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