As a UK school tells parents to delete the messaging app, Christina Hopkinson says good riddance to bad chat.
Head teachers have long attempted to police the phones of pupils but now they're coming after those of their parents. Jane Lunnon, head of academic powerhouse Wimbledon High School in South London, has advised parents (and by this we can presume she means mostly mothers) to avoid class WhatsApp groups set up to share details of PE kit needed for netball matches and missing homework.
'Stay off the parents' WhatsApp chat!' she writes in her New Year newsletter. 'When your children are in secondary school, it's time for them to take control of homework and other logistics.'
Like many pieces of advice from school heads this is both eminently sensible and shamingly unachievable. You'll not find me announcing my departure from any of the three secondary-school class WhatsApp groups I follow. With photos of lost homework sheets, clarification of sports kit requirements and reminders of tomorrow's test, they have frequently saved my children from detention (which is of course the very helicopter parenting she's warning against).
She is not wrong, however, to question the wisdom of the many WhatsApp groups silting up the average phone. Here are just a few others that should probably come with a health warning.
1. The office or work group
These can be official and sanctioned by the boss or unofficial and bitching about the boss. Both are fraught. The formal ones mean that the tentacles of work invade home life ever more tenaciously. Psychologists warn of modern employees' inability to escape and switch off as work is always pinging into the phone in hand.
The informal ones commenting on a colleague's dress sense or habit of misusing the word 'myself' and the phrase 'low-hanging fruit' are no better. Even if the chat doesn't centre around actual tasks, it's still allowing the worlds of work and home to merge. And there are legal issues that many are unaware of.
Most larger employers have WhatsApp policies in place which means that they could take disciplinary action if problems arise from comments made. Employment law expert David Hession of solicitors Simpson Millar notes that 'Employers are likely to have a strong case for taking disciplinary action where employees specifically set up WhatsApp groups designed to abuse or belittle other employees.' In other words, what seems like casual watercooler conversation over the phone could lead to losing your job.
2. The family splinter group
With every family WhatsApp group comes the rebel faction offshoot. It's the paramilitary wing of family communications, where the app is weaponised for nuclear grade bitching and a resurrection of teenage tensions.
The groups are called things like 'the Good Joneses' or 'Siblings I Don't Hate' and initially form a useful function in being able to offload tensions away from the official family WhatsApp. But technology is only as competent as its user and inevitably someone will accidentally post their most incendiary message onto the main group to broadcast it to every last aunt.
3. The one for animal lovers only
WhatsApp provides the perfect space to share photos of puppies dressed in Arsenal kit or footage of a kitten falling into the bath. Only animal lovers allowed so there's no snarky comments about how stupid Labradors are or that cats are actually our evil overlords.
The overwhelming cuteness is the very problem though as soon it becomes a place where links and photos of creatures in need of rescue are posted. Your phone is filled with heart-breaking images of a Poodle-cross called Freckles, found wandering the streets of Romania and who just wants a sofa to lie on. When asked the question, 'can you give him his furever home?' are you sure you'll be able to resist?
4. The safe place for 'dangerous thoughts' group
In a world where we're constantly policing ourselves in order to avoid offence, it comes as a relief to establish a special politically incorrect group where we can body-shame Love Island contestants or express inappropriate desires about Keir Starmer.
But while we tell our children to never put anything on social media that they wouldn't wear printed on a t-shirt to Sunday lunch at their gran's, we are guilty of terrible indiscretions ourselves. We may think that we are 'just joking', but all it takes is someone to take a screenshot of this kind of verbal larking about and suddenly it's not so funny. We are exposed, like those politicians who spout racist or sexist ramblings on Twitter ten years before they stand for office and then are surprised when it resurfaces. Remember: nothing ever leaves the Internet.
5. Amateur sports teams Whats App
Having a WhatsApp group is probably the only way in which your local five-a-side players have anything in common with the professionals. Europe's Ryder Cup team is said to have bonded over the 'bantz' shared on the app, while Phil Neville has apparently gotten to know the details of the home lives of England's women's football team through theirs.
But like eating turkey breast for breakfast or wearing running tights, it's not always a good idea for us mortals to emulate the habits of elite athletes. What starts out as a practical way of letting everyone know what time to meet for a kickabout, run or tennis match soon becomes a litany of injuries and angst. A random screen shot of the average sports group with participants over the age of 30 is a memento morimore poignant than a skull in an Elizabethan painting. Eleanor's tennis elbow, Dave's dodgy calves, Becky's plantar fasciitis… all are outlined in agonising detail backed up by a Greek chorus of their physiotherapists' dire warnings about the dangers of exercising in middle age. You'll never be more aware of your own mortality.
Even the groups associated with children's sports are not immune from issues. Anyone who's ever watched a kids' match knows that hell hath no fury like the father of boy whose shirt has been tugged in the goal area. The language associated with the pitch's side lines is no better when it's replicated on a phone. I still cringe to recall the midnight rantings of the parent whose child hadn't been chosen for the semi-cup game and who was never seen again.