WhatsApp: A Concerning Update is Coming

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One of the most challenging aspects of allowing our children – and ourselves — access to apps and technology platforms is that even though we may do research and investigate the capabilities of each app before allowing it, we never know what can change overnight in the app, without us even realizing it. App developers and owners are constantly updating and adding features to their apps that can radically alter their capabilities.

A prime example of this is WhatsApp. People may have allowed themselves and their children access to this app based on past research; however, recent developments have changed the app’s capabilities and, with it, the dangers.

Without going into the pros and cons of WhatsApp right now, there were three factors that parents took into account when deciding to allow their children access to WhatsApp:

1. No anonymity. Unlike other Social Media platforms such as Instagram and Telegram, where a user can create an account using a fake profile name, with WhatsApp there was no way for users to block their number from being seen by the public. This was a major factor dissuading users from joining an inappropriate group chat, as there was no way for them to hide the fact that they were on it.

2. Access to groups. Unlike other Social Media platforms, on which a user can search for any other user or group by name or topic and join it, on WhatsApp there was no way to search for other users. In order to join a group, an invite link was required, or one needed to be added on by the admin.

3. Parental supervision. Parents felt that they could be on top of what their children were accessing on WhatsApp by periodically checking their phones and seeing who they were in contact with and which groups they were part of.

Recently, however, all this has changed. On May 15, 2023, WhatsApp announced a new feature called “Chat Lock,” which lets users lock a chat. This feature takes that chat out of the inbox and puts it behind its own folder, which can only be accessed with the device password or with biometrics like Face ID or a fingerprint. Once the chat has been locked, it will also automatically hide the contents of the chat in notifications, and no notification will show up regarding that chat. In order to reveal the hidden chats, you have to slowly pull down on the inbox, which then reveals the option to unlock the chat.

WhatsApp also announced that they will soon be rolling out the option to have a custom password for your chats that is different from the password used to get into your device, in case others know your entry password.

This is obviously a setback for parents who want to be on top of their children’s usage. Many won’t even be aware that such a feature exists, keeping them from knowing who their child is in contact with. And even once they know about it, if a different password is needed to access the chats, it will make it that much harder for parents to monitor their children’s actions.

An even more troublesome feature that WhatsApp is now testing in Singapore and Colombia, and is slated to make available to more countries in the coming months, is the new “WhatsApp Channels.” This is how WhatsApp describes its new Channels feature, which will be accessed in a new folder called “Updates,” together with the Status feature.

“Channels are a one-way broadcast tool for admins to send text, photos, videos, stickers, and polls. To help you select channels to follow, we’re building a searchable directory where you can find your hobbies, sports teams, updates from local officials, and more.

“We’re aspiring to build the most private broadcast service available. This starts by protecting the personal information of both admins and followers. As a channel admin, your phone number and profile photo won’t be shown to followers. Likewise, following a channel won’t reveal your phone number to the admin or other followers. Who you decide to follow is your choice and it’s private.”

In other words, the two main reasons why WhatsApp was considered safer than Telegram and other sites, namely the inability to hide which chats you join and the inability to just search and join groups, will soon no longer be in force.

It is well known that Telegram is a breeding ground for extremely inappropriate conduct, including within the frum community, which is why it is widely viewed as an app that doesn’t belong on the phone of an ehrliche person. WhatsApp now has many of the features of Telegram that were the catalyst for these behaviors.

As parents we have to constantly be on top of our children’s – and our own — access, and, in order to do so, it is crucial to keep ourselves updated on the latest changes in the ever-evolving world of technology.

From the Mishor Weekly Email

Mishor helps teenagers, parents and mechanchim navigate the challenges of technology. | Mishor’s services include: Awareness: through emails, brochures, and presentations for schools and parents. | Support and Guidance Hotline: for adults and teens | Counseling, Filtering and Ongoing Support: for teens who need individualized help. | For more information, for questions and comments, or sign up for their weekly email, contact MISHOR at (732) 894-4515 or info@mishor.org.

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