Chain letters in digital media

Chain letters used to come in the mail or via email. Today, chain letters are mainly sent via WhatsApp or other social media apps. Due to the simple way of sharing, chain letters spread like wildfire within the network.

Generally, chain letters always appear in waves e.g. at the start of school. Eventually, one chain letter dies down and the next one appears on the scene. Many chain letters are actually very old and have been sent by email in the past.

Many elementary school children already have WhatsApp accounts and thus come into contact with a wide variety of chain letters, some of which they cannot assess the content of - "as a precaution," everything is therefore forwarded. Mostly, only harmless jokes are shared en masse on WhatsApp. Sometimes, however, chain letters also contain death threats, scary stories or messages that trigger a lot of social pressure because they sometimes measure a child's popularity. It is important for adults as well as children to distinguish between "fun" and more serious content such as death threats/intimidation or scams.

Types of chain letters

Whether the warning is about an evil person or a disease, the goal of the message is to spread quickly and play on the fear of the recipients. Whether the supposed danger is true or not is not even questioned - the main thing is that it spreads. By the way, such messages are shared by young and old. They also include alleged appeals for donations (e.g. plasma donations), warnings about viruses or other malware.

Such reports are subject to seasonal fluctuations and often pick up on topics that are intended to frighten and can currently be found in (tabloid) media. They are directed against certain groups or phenomena (e.g. animal abusers, "social parasites," refugees, political dissidents, etc.). Often, lurid presentations or dramatic images are used that actually have nothing to do with the topic or are taken completely out of context.

Funny actions and flash mob-like events are particularly popular among students. Such activities are often spread via WhatsApp and shared there like crazy. The content usually revolves around wearing a uniform outfit or carrying out joint activities that are scheduled during the school day. Of course, the organizers hope to inspire as many people as possible for their action.

Threatening chain letters designed to instill fear spread particularly quickly. There are various threat scenarios: The death of parents, one's own death or the appearance of a monster. Not infrequently, the effect of such messages is enhanced by videos or attached audio files. Sometimes these scary stories can also be found as videos on YouTube, and a Google search also turns up supposed "proof" of the authenticity of these stories. One example is the "Slenderman" art figure, which was originally created as an art project and eventually found its way into youth culture.

The category of clickbaiting mainly includes lurid content.  With dramatic images and sensational captions, they entice the audience to click on a link. After clicking, it quickly becomes clear that the promised content does not exist at all - often, malware is caught. This sensational message thus acts as a "bait" to click on.

The hearts and smileys received have nothing to do with one's own popularity, but show how many people in the circle of friends go along with any "online nonsense".  However, these chain letters should not be downplayed, as they can exert a great deal of social pressure on children and young people.

Chain letters warning of rising WhatsApp charges or the deletion of the WhatsApp account keep popping up - meanwhile, there are numerous variations of such messages. What they all have in common: the truth content is zero.

Chain letters - multiplication as a goal

"Forward this message to at least 10 people": The goal of every chain letter is for the content to reach as many people as possible. Usually, this is explicitly demanded and - should one not comply - linked to a threat. But this is not always the case, because sometimes it says something more cryptic: "Warn your acquaintances" or "If you don't want this, tell others" etc. Most chain letters have some form of false message as their content. Sometimes, however, chain letters also serve as a tool for measuring one's own popularity.

Why are chain letters sent in the first place?

Who actually benefits when others get scared or hearts are distributed on the Internet? The backgrounds of chain letters are diverse. They include, for example:

  • Exerting power on others
  • Boredom
  • Lack of tasks

The function of WhatsApp chain letters as a "social barometer" is also becoming increasingly important: How popular am I in my class or circle of friends? The decisive factor is the number of messages that are sent back by the others. Caution: Such apparently harmless chain letters can exert a great deal of social pressure on children.

Dealing with chain letters

If children contact you with a WhatsApp chain letter, you should definitely take it seriously -  no matter what kind of chain letter it is. Chain letters spread at breakneck speed on WhatsApp and can cause great anxiety, especially among younger children. 

Here you can find tips on how parents and teachers can discuss the topic of chain letters with children:

Address the topic on your own initiative/ask the class what chain letters are currently circulating and explain what chain letters are. Children are often not aware of what is behind chain letters and that the "dangers" described in them have nothing to do with reality.

Take children's fears seriously! When a child worries that he or she or a loved one might die, or that he or she will be unpopular in class, these worries are very real and often very powerful. It is not always easy to rebut these irrational fears with reasonable arguments. But maybe it helps to tell stories from your own past; after all, each of us was confronted with chain letters (via other media) in our own childhood and no misfortune happened to us.

Discuss with children which chain letters can be forwarded and which cannot, set clear rules. Not all chain letters are threatening or questionable, some are just nice! Go through the chain letters together, and practice together not forwarding "scary" chain letters so as not to frighten more children unnecessarily. Simply delete chain letters with unpleasant content right away!

Make it clear to your child again and again that nothing bad will happen if you don't forward a chain letter. If you accompany your child, he or she will gain confidence over time that the dangers threatened in chain letters are not real.

The chain letter chatbot from

The chain letter robot helps children deal with scary and other chain letters. Instead of forwarding a chain letter on WhatsApp to their circle of friends, children can send it to the number 0681 10 809 449.

Further information