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What’s up with that? WhatsApp as a new weapon

| June 22, 2016 | 0 Comments

By Lara Van Lelyveld

In many parts of the world, WhatsApp, a digital social media platform, has become a key communication tool in schools.1

Ifound myself using WhatsApp to communicate with my register class and began to wonder: how does the daily use of WhatsApp affect teenagers? Previously, research done on instant messaging tools have looked at their impact on users’vocabulary and spelling, or their ability to focus in class or stay on task. These are important questions, and certainly instant messaging has had an impact on students’ ability to focus. Countless productivity experts speak of the danger of the constant interruptions provided by notifications via smartphone, tablet and computer.2We have also become increasingly well informed about cyberbullying and child pornography.3

What’s up with this app?

My question, however, is a little subtler: how does WhatsApp impact on the everyday emotional well-being of teenagers?

We are familiar with the existence and experience of student
cliques within schools. The line separating groups can be a clear one, or a permeable one. Many hours of teenage anguish arise from wondering on which side of the line one might fall. That line dividing “in” and “out” is not a steady one; even once crossed into the “cool” group, you are not automatically safe. You might be accepted based on your opinion of the maths teacher, but will you remain in the group once you aren’t able to make it to Michelle’s party on Friday? This phenomenon has been well studied and is well known for teenagers and parents alike.4

As an example of this in-out group phenomenon, let me tell you about Sandiswa, a Grade 11 student, who shared with me how in his social community, WhatsApp groups were being created by a group of people who had gone to an event together. Others would not be included in the group if they had not been to the event, with the result that even good friends would be excluded from the group chat. On the surface, this is perfectly fine – why would you want to discuss an event at which you were not present? – but why was it that you couldn’t attend the event? If the answer is something that makes you feel ashamed or uncomfortable (such as not being able to afford the ticket price), then that is a form of exclusion, which can be hurtful. With WhatsApp groups (and the number of WhatsApp groups a student belongs to can vary from two to 20), you draw an endless number of boundaries. Everything from choosing a new group name, to who is in the group – who is literally deciding where the boundaries lie? It is almost too easy to exclude someone.

Drawing new boundaries every day

WhatsApp groups and chats seem to emit a subtle, incessant pressure to fit a particular mould, and I am sometimes disheartened at the extent to which our students will go to accomplish that goal. There can be a degree of pressure or expectation in group chats. The power dynamics that impact person-to-person interaction are also present in the technological realm. If someone says something hurtful, do you feel comfortable enough to call them out on it? Do emojis5 do enough to show variations of tone? How do you manage disagreements and hurt feelings via group chat? Is that even possible?

What exactly should we teachers do about this kind of digital in/out group situation? I’m not asking the world to be more sensitive (although it would be nice if we did that, too), but I do want to know how to make my students more resilient in the face of the challenges inherent in WhatsApp groups and chats. To some extent, experiencing rejection or acceptance in this way is within the nature of the teenage experience, but that does not automatically render the experience acceptable. How do we prevent our students from being buffeted by these winds challenging them to fit in? How do we steer them away from the direction their peers desire and thus send them off course and into a spin? How do we encourage them to say “no”, to resist the subtle pressures and be comfortable enough to do so?

Let’s get a grip

Let’s resurrect those ancient guidance class conversations about peer pressure, but for the 21st century. Life orientation curricula teach peer pressure as though it only happens in conversation during break, but that is no longer the case. We could help students develop a bit of perspective on this issue. Peer pressure is bad, and when a group chat – implicitly or explicitly – makes you feel like you need to behave a certain way, that is negative peer pressure.

Let’s introduce WhatsApp discussions into all life orientation classrooms. These conversations could begin with topics such as “Brainstorming how best to manage your cellphone during exams” and, with some subtle guidance, could be expanded to how the students feel about the messaging app in general. I’ve included a few “starter” questions to get the discussion going:
• When you see WhatsApp notifications, what is your first thought? What do you choose to do?
• When a friend “humblebrags”6 on a group chat, what do you do? How do you feel?
• In group chats that involve people from different schools, do you feel comfortable?

It is heartening to know that the very old-fashioned ideas of “being true to yourself ” and resisting peer pressure can have a place in helping today’s teenagers cope with the otherwise unique stress and pressures of the 21st century.


1. See, for example:
school-teachers-on-whatsapp/ and JITEv13ResearchP217-231Bouhnik0601.pdf.
2. See, for example:
interruption-technology/ and tool distraction/OzHjXyL7VVIXV1AEkeYTiJ/story.html and
3. See, for example:
4. See, for example:
5. See, for example:
6. See, for example:

Category: Winter 2016

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