WhatsApp safety tips for children that parents need to know

There are a number of controls within the app that help protect users from unwanted contact and content
There are a number of controls within the app that help protect users from unwanted contact and content

Children as young as nine have been added to dangerous WhatsApp groups, the BBC has reported.

Parents with children at schools across Tyneside have been sent a warning by Northumbria Police about WhatsApp groups said to promote self-harm, sexual violence and racism.

The BBC said one parent said her 12-year-old daughter had viewed sexual images, racism and swearing that "no child should be seeing". The NPSCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) said experiences like these were not unusual.

Meta, which owns WhatsApp as well as Facebook and Instagram, said all users had “options to control who can add them to groups" and can block and report unknown numbers.

Senior officer for children's safety online, Rani Govender, said content promoting suicide or self-harm can affect their sleep and cause anxiety.

"It can make them just not feel like themselves and really play on their mind afterwards,” she added.

Users must be 13 or older in the UK and Europe to use WhatsApp, which was reduced from 16 this year.

The Government said it had received no notice of the change in advance.

A Government source said the decision to lower the minimum age for WhatsApp access "flies in the face of growing concerns from parents about children's social media use and rising adolescent mental ill-health".

In light of this, here are some steps parents can take to ensure their children are protected on WhatsApp, according to the UK Safer Internet Centre.

Group chats

The default setting in WhatsApp allows anyone to add your child to a chat without needing permission. To disable this, go to WhatsApp on their phone, and follow:

  • Settings > Account > Privacy > Groups > My Contacts Except

  • Then, Select All Their Contacts.

Location tracking 

Your child’s live location is not automatically visible on WhatsApp but it is possible to share it. If you are not comfortable with this, location tracking can quickly and easily be disabled.

For Apple devices, head to:

  • Settings > Privacy, then select Location Services.

  • Select an app, then turn Precise Location on or off.

For Android devices, head to:

  • Quick settings menu, then long-press on the Location icon. Or, swipe down, tap Settings icon, and choose Location.

    Find the Use Location feature at the top and toggle it off.

Read receipts and 'last seen'

Deactivating read receipts will mean that no one knows when or if your child has read a message, which may be useful if your child is feeling pressure to respond quickly.

The “last seen” status allows other people to see when your child last opened the app to the exact minute. If this feature makes you uncomfortable, it can be disabled by heading to: Settings > Account > Last Seen, then change the setting to Nobody.

Open dialogue

Let your children know that they can come to you for help and support if they see anything that concerns, upsets or confuses them online. And make them aware that other users can easily be reported and blocked within the app if they are being made to feel uncomfortable.