Parents warned of teen mental health risks as WhatsApp lowers minimum age

Teenager WhatsApp mental health. (Getty Images)
A counsellor shares tips on how to protect your teens' mental health amid increased access to phone apps. (Getty Images)

The news of Meta lowering the WhatsApp minimum age requirement in the EU and UK from 16 to 13 last week was labelled "tone deaf" by campaigners. And with mental health in particular and increased phone use among young people a growing concern, it's no surprise parents and carers will also be worried about the effect of the latest change on their young teens.

While it may seem a more harmless app out of the bunch, commenting on the decision, co-founder of campaign group Smartphone Free Childhood Daisy Greenwell said it could work "like a gateway drug for the rest of the social media apps". Now speaking to Yahoo UK, BACP-registered counsellor Georgina Sturmer holds similar concerns, while sharing tangible tips on how you can help protect young people's mental health on their devices amid growing access.

Mental health risks of the lower age limit

Close - up finger pointing to Facebook mobile app displayed on a smartphone screen alongside that of X,Whatsapp,Telegram,TikTok,Threads, on August 15, 2023, in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo illustration by Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Use of WhatsApp may lead to use of other phone apps. (Getty Images)

"The challenge with WhatsApp is that we often think of it as being totally benign. A fun and efficient way to stay in touch with people and share information. But that ignores its addictive quality, as it draws us in to make comments and to connect," says Sturmer.

"This can lead to anxiety and worry about ignoring messages, or being ignored, or being left out. It can draw us in to respond to peer pressure, or toxic friendship dynamics. And children don’t always understand the full implications of the messages that they might share and send. Then even once our phones are put to bed, or set to downtime, it can be hard to switch off mentally from the FOMO that comes with not knowing what’s happening on the app.

"Young minds are unprepared for some of the content that spreads like wildfire on WhatsApp. They might forward it without thinking, and become complicit in its spread. And once seen, it’s hard for it to be ‘unseen’ and for children to be protected and remain innocent."

The counsellor warns that if we see WhatsApp as just a simple messaging app, then parents and carers might be less likely to force or encourage children to adopt safety features, which in itself can make this type of app potentially more damaging.

Adding to a widespread issue

Teenage Boy Relaxing in his Bedroom
"Smartphone use is dominating childhood and adolescence in an unprecedented way," says counsellor Sturmer.

It should be noted that the new update is in line with the general minimum age requirement of 13 already in place for WhatsApp globally. And while concerns are valid, it isn't just a problem of WhatsApp, with 13 typically being the existing minimum age for other social and messaging platforms, including Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and X.

Many view it is, however, a shame to add to the problem and ignore warnings from experts. "Smartphone use is dominating childhood and adolescence in an unprecedented way. The reality is that many children do use phones and apps at younger and younger ages," says Sturmer.

"Smartphones provide us with so many different things – information, connection, communication, entertainment. But the challenge is that this all comes at a cost. There’s an addictive quality to many of the apps and utilities that we use on our phones. And once we are using one app, it’s easy to see how this can become a 'gateway' to spending more time on our phones and accessing more content.

"These apps make it so much easier for our children to access content – whether by design or by accident – that they are simply not mature enough to understand or to process. They might see images or messages that scare them or worry them, or that lead them into forming views and opinions that we might consider worrying.

"When we think about the impact that this might have when we are young and our brains are still developing – and we are figuring out who we are – we can understand that this might come at a cost."

The general increased phone use among young teens can also steer them away from engaging in activity in person, or using their imagination alone. "It can make it harder for us to connect to the real world, to develop our social skills, to understand how to conduct research and investigation, and to allow ourselves to be bored. To allow our minds to wander and be creative and discover and invent new ways to entertain and express ourselves."

How to protect young people's mental health on phone apps

1. Encourage ‘offline’ activities

Mother and daughter taking care of plants together at home
Doing simple things they love with them will distract them for a healthy amount of time. (Getty Images)

While it may not be about saying 'no' completely to online activity, it's important this is balanced out with as much 'offline' activity as possible. "Find a way to nurture your child’s interests in order to support them to be engaged and creative away from their phones," says Sturmer.

What does your child like to do and how can you help bring more of that into their life?

2. Be a role model.

This one may help to shine a light to the addiction adults also experience on messaging and social media platforms, and maybe even get you off your phone more.

"Children copy what we do, not what we say. So if you want your child to spend less time on messaging apps, make sure that they see you engaging in real life communications," Sturmer advises.

3. Embrace the positive side of communication apps

Yes, for some it can be about partly accepting the world we live in, if you want them to respect your safety guidance and not hide things from you.

"If we are all ‘doom and gloom’ then it’s possible that our children might simply switch off when we offer them guidance or boundaries. Acknowledge that these apps can be a useful way to stay in touch with people," says the counsellor.

4. Set clear rules about passwords, screen time and phone ownership

Photo of father with daughter surfing the net at the home
Work as a team with your young teen about their phone use. (Getty Images)

"If your child has a phone, it’s important for them to understand your rules and boundaries. You may decide to set time limits or to insist on ’screen-free’ zones of your house," suggests Sturmer.

"And it can be helpful to remind your child that you want to protect them, and that you reserve the right to check their phones – especially if you’re paying the bill!"

If you start this early on, it will help them become used to it.

5. Encourage dialogue

"It’s tough to strike the right balance, but we want our children to be able to talk to us. If we encourage dialogue in our homes, then our children are more likely to come to us with their worries, without fear of retribution or punishment," she explains.

So, while the concerns from mental health experts, child safety experts, teachers and doctors (the list could go on) are all valid, and campaigners continue to fight to improve online safety for young people, hopefully it's reassuring to know you're not completely powerless when it comes to your young teens' phone use in the meantime.

A WhatsApp spokesperson says, "We give all users options to control who can add them to groups and the first time you receive a message from an unknown number we give you the option to block and report the account."

Here you can find WhatsApp's teen information centre, how to stay safe on WhatsApp page and how to change group privacy settings page.

Watch: Meta under fire for ‘tone deaf’ minimum age change on WhatsApp