WhatsApp is now more important than ever for grandparents

With the risk of coronavirus infection separating countless grandparents from their children, chat apps like WhatsApp have taken on even more relevance for those in isolation. — Jens Kalaene/dpa

Even before we knew what Covid-19 was, grandparents were increasingly called upon to stay up-to-date technologically, particularly when they live far away from their children and grandchildren.

But now, with the risk of coronavirus infection separating countless grandparents from younger generations, chat apps like WhatsApp have taken on even more relevance for those in isolation.

Numerous online advice websites for the elderly such as Grandparents Plus and Gransnet have begun recommending WhatsApp to those who can't see their grandchildren during the lockdown.

"Emails are really no longer enough to stay in touch," says Eckart Hammer, a professor of gerontology in Ludwigsburg, Germany. "These days you need WhatsApp, with which you can easily send photos and messages."

Further isolating oneself by rejecting "modern rubbish" is not a good idea for anyone who would want to keep in touch with the younger generations.

"Children usually only write letters when they are forced to do so," Hammer notes.

Instead, youngsters chat online and over phones. Anyone who wants to be part of the conversation will therefore need to be in a position to share and receive pictures and messages.

Ideally, seniors should get their grandchildren to set up a smartphone or tablet for them when they visit.

Beyond that, however, grandparents can opt to keep smartphones out of bounds in their home, Hammer says: children usually accept the fact that the rules there may differ from those that apply at home.

And what about children? Should they have free rein and be able to independently communicate with their grandparents?

WhatsApp has set a minimum age of 16 for use, but if parents know or agree to their children using the app despite this, they should at least walk through the app with their child, says Iren Schulz a digital consumer awareness advocate for children.

Banning them from using the services usually achieves nothing, as children are often more technically versed than their parents. A better idea is to maintain an open dialogue and explain to young users what risks are behind the messenger.

Schulz advises parents install the app together with their children. "This starts with the profile picture. If possible, it’s better to choose a cartoon picture or a distorted photo," says Schulz.

Setting children up to chat with relatives is of course a nice idea, but you may want to enquire if anyone else is sending your child messages.

Whether a child is already in a position to responsibly handle their own personal data is something that parents will have to decide for themselves, says Schulz.

Parents also need to be aware that they are responsible for how their children deal with media like WhatsApp. In any case, age restrictions are not something parents can rely on. – dpa

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