Mobile messengers allow people to communicate in real-time. They offer extensive communication options while on the move and are particularly popular with adolescents. At the same time, however, they also harbor high risks of confronting children with inappropriate content such as violence, extremism, and pornography or being approached by unfamiliar contacts. Mobile messenger services, therefore, require cautious handling as well as selection and support by parents.
Most young smartphone owners use messenger services. Thanks to their mobile data volume, they use them to send and receive messages regardless of text length and frequency. According to the JIM Study 2020, WhatsApp is the most important online communication service. Around 94 percent of young people use it several times a week to communicate with others (86 % daily). The young people who use WhatsApp receive an average of 22 messages a day. Eighty-seven percent of all students have a WhatsApp group with their class (girls: 88 %, boys: 85 %). However, the simple, quick exchange with friends in real-time also carries risks that parents and children had better not lose sight of while enjoying the benefits of messenger services.
Messengers are unmoderated: There is usually no way to report troublemakers or harassers. Therefore, the inhibition thresholds for harassment are lower here. Mobile messengers are often used for cyberbullying – excluding people from groups, creating hate groups, spreading embarrassing photos, and sending offensive messages. The mobility of the applications means that conflicts are carried from the classroom and the schoolyard all the way home. For victims, this means even greater stress and helplessness.
Parents can watch out for various signs that indicate cyberbullying. Here you can find everything on the subject. It is also essential that they are available to their children as a contact person from the beginning if conversations in messengers unsettle them.
Another risk of mobile messengers lies in the confrontation of younger and older children with content that they cannot yet categorize and frighten them. This includes right-wing extremist and Islamist propaganda as well as pornography or violent videos. According to the JIM Study 2020, two-thirds of cell phone users know that such films are distributed via the smartphone. Twenty-three percent of those surveyed said they had already heard something like this among their friends, and 13 percent said they themselves had already been sent such content without being asked.
With smartphones and messenger apps, the possibilities of being approached personally by strangers are growing. Careless disclosure of one’s contact data in profiles or platforms increases the risk of being closed without permission. But some messengers also have a search function that makes accounts traceable.
If the few security settings that are possible to restrict the profile’s visibility and the contact options remain deactivated, unpleasant situations such as sexual harassment can occur regardless of one’s behavior.
Mobile messengers: not for children?
The various risks of messengers show a few things for parents and children to consider when using them. By far, the most popular application used by adolescents is WhatsApp. However, neither data protection nor youth protection is a top priority for the provider. It is, therefore, all the more important that parents use the few options available to make the messenger safer.
Online providers are not allowed to process personal data of children under 16 without the consent of their parents. This also applies to Messenger. So installation and registration of the offers are a matter for parents. In practice, however, most providers do not check this. It is often sufficient to enter the date of birth or a simple confirmation for data processing – so children can quickly enter data on their own.