WhatsApp - Popular messenger with risks

The messenger service WhatsApp is also very popular with children and teenagers. While younger children mainly use it to contact their parents, teenagers use it more to communicate with each other. According to the terms of use, the minimum age of WhatApp is 13 (as of March 2024). However, does not check whether users have already reached the required minimum age.

The app can be used to send text and voice messages, images, videos, files, contacts and your location. Calls, video calls and status messages are also possible. WhatsApp therefore offers a platform for quick and easy communication with numerous options. However, the attractive communication options also harbor some risks.

In addition to data protection issues, inappropriate content, such as scary chain letters, are a major problem. These are often spread carelessly. Talk to your children about how they can deal with such content and always offer your help. As there are no privacy settings on WhatsApp, it is up to the users themselves to pay attention to the content they send. This means that you should only send content that everyone is allowed to read or see. The same applies here: Think first, then write!

Anyone who is unsure whether WhatsApp is set securely can now check this more easily. Above the privacy settings, WhatsApp offers a highlighted message to guide you through the app's various security options. With a click on "Start check", you can see the most important settings and adjust them.

Privacy in WhatsApp

Once the application is installed, all contacts in the address book are automatically retrieved. This happens regardless of whether they use WhatsApp themselves. This is a process that is repeatedly criticized by data protectionists. The contacts who have also installed WhatsApp Messenger are then automatically displayed in the app.

All contacts can now be added to groups without their consent, depending on their privacy settings. Here, the user's own number is also displayed to every member of the group. This way, the personal phone number can quickly fall into the wrong hands.

Since WhatsApp belongs to Meta (formerly Facebook), one's own data is not safe from the parent company either. In addition to one's own phone number and usage times, users' metadata can also be collected. This includes who you communicate with and how often, or in which groups you are within WhatsApp.

WhatsApp therefore also passes on the phone numbers of other contacts from one's own address book - even if they do not use WhatsApp. If you also have a Facebook account, even better conclusions can be drawn from the connection of this data. This data can later be used for personalized advertising and the like.

Set up WhatsApp securely

WhatsApp offers few options to protect one's privacy. Children and teenagers in particular should take advantage of these and make WhatsApp as secure as possible. In the settings, for example, you can choose who can see things like the "last online" display. One can always choose between "visible to everyone, my contacts or no one". This is possible for:

  • Last online
  • Profile picture
  • Info
  • Status

Especially for children and teenagers, everything here should be set to "nobody" or "my contacts". Saferinternet.at offers step-by-step instructions for all these settings.

WhatsApp offers since June 2023 the possibility to mute calls from unknown numbers. This can be done by going to the settings after opening WhatsApp. There you will find the keyword "Calls" in the "Privacy" section. One click further, you can activate the function "Mute calls from unknown".

Block and delete numbers

It is only possible to contact someone via WhatsApp if you have their number. As a rule, this concerns those contacts that are also found in your own address book. However, it may also be the case that an unknown person establishes contact. This is possible, for example, if one's own mobile phone number is accessible to a larger public.

When you receive a message from an unknown number, the "Add" and "Block" buttons appear in the chat window. If you click on "Block", you will no longer receive messages from the unknown contact. The blocked person cannot see when you were "last online..." or whether you are currently "online". Changes to your own profile are also not displayed. If you unblock a contact, you will not receive any messages that he or she has sent during the time of the block.

  • Blocking does not remove the contact from your WhatsApp list, nor does it remove your number from their list. To delete a contact from your WhatsApp list, you have to delete it from your address book.
  • Even if a WhatsApp contact has been blocked on the service itself, it is still possible for them to continue to harass someone via SMS, MMS, etc. using their mobile number.