How long does it take to read 935 messages?

Kids-only messaging groups seem a bane to children and their parents, but they can be useful for pupils who want to stay on top of their homework



3 June 2018

Venessa Lee


Primary 5 pupil Xaviar Ang sometimes receives 200 WhatsApp messages a day.

Earlier this year, when the 10-year-old went on a school trip to Vietnam for five days, he came back to find 2,000 messages on his smartphone.

Just like adults who are part of various group chats on messaging apps such as Line and Telegram, Xaviar and other children have their own, kids-only chats, which are often grouped by class, school level, co-curricular activity (CCA) group or other interests and social circles.

Xaviar has found, though, that group chats can be a double-edged sword.

“If I have queries about homework, I can ask the chat group. I can also contact friends,” he says. “The worst part is the spamming and non-stop messaging.”

He describes strings of LOLs, emojis or simple “hi” messages, which have occasionally left his phone vibrating with message notifications late into the night.

His parents – engineer Mike Ang, 48, and office manager Low Pei Pei, 47 – were concerned when vulgarities and name-calling surfaced previously in his group chats.

While these are rare incidents, occasional spot checks on Xaviar’s phone help reaffirm the point that the use of foul language is not acceptable, says Ms Low.

Mr Ang, who leads a group of dad volunteers at Xaviar’s school, says they will not step in unless something serious, such as bullying, occurs. Otherwise, they encourage their children to learn to communicate with their peers on their own.

“It’s about slowly giving him a bit of freedom. He has to learn to be more independent and part of that is self-discipline,” says Mr Ang, of his only child.

Many children may use messaging apps, given the prevalence of smartphones. But parenting experts caution that the convenient tool can be misused, especially in the absence of adults.

Both primary and secondary school children may use group chats “to discuss homework or projects, organise outings or simply socialise and develop friendships,” says Ms Michelle Teo, a consultant at Village Consultancy, which provides digital literacy consultancy.

Some group chats have teachers involved, say, to disseminate school information, answer academic questions or remind students about upcoming deadlines.

But Ms Teo adds: “There are no community managers to disallow or remove inappropriate posts or comments and uphold certain standards, unlike Facebook and other social media tools. Thus, the likelihood of a child encountering inappropriate content, such as bullying, is high.”

Parenting experts say that open communication is crucial to helping children navigate such platforms.

Ms Cheryl Ng, principal trainer at Focus on the Family Singapore, says: “Parents need to assure their children that they can always come to them for help without fear of punishment or judgment. They can teach their children about the functions and tools such apps have, such as privacy settings and safety functions, and politely exiting groups or blocking contacts if necessary.”

She says children may not know how to deal with nasty comments in the chat group or how to process their emotions, as many are still learning to navigate such situations in real life.

Although parents may give their kids smartphones to stay connected, parents need to ask themselves if their child is mature enough to be in a kids-only messaging app group, Ms Ng says.

“We have come across situations where primary schoolchildren share videos with violent or sexual content, as well as racist jokes or memes,” she says.

WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, announced in April it was raising its minimum age from 13 to 16 in Europe to help it comply with new data privacy rules. Its minimum age of use will remain at 13 in the rest of the world, in line with its parent company.

Some parents say their close family ties have helped their children handle distractions and conflicts arising from messaging app group chats.

Focus on the Family Singapore’s chief executive officer Joanna Koh-Hoe, 43, noticed earlier this year that her son, Primary 6 pupil Tobias Koh, was frequently checking his WhatsApp messages.

He would take up to two hours to complete a piece of homework that would ordinarily take him 30 minutes, says Mrs Koh-Hoe, who is married to a 47-year-old school counsellor.

Tobias, 11, says: “We feel a need to be updated, to make sure we don’t miss out on anything.”

The problem of lack of concentration soon eased when he and his parents agreed that he had to leave his phone in another room while doing his homework. Now, he is disciplined enough to focus on his work as long as the phone is not directly in front of him.

Mother-of-two Carol Phua, 44, says she and her husband have general guidelines to help their elder child, 12-year-old Claire Chan, handle or avoid challenging situations on WhatsApp. Their younger child, 10-year-old Ethan, is not allowed to have a smartphone yet.

These rules include not commenting unnecessarily, in case other people’s feelings get hurt, and not ganging up against others in the group chat as it is a form of bullying, says Ms Phua, a programme manager in the information technology sector.

Claire says it can be tough witnessing friends embroiled in conflict.

And sometimes, resolving the situation in real life is the solution, she realises.

“It’s difficult when two of your close friends are fighting and you’re stuck in the middle. It’s easier to talk in person than to talk online because you don’t know what people are feeling,” she says.

For some parents whose children are now teens with several years’ experience using messaging apps, setting online boundaries early on has paid off.

Ms Josey Koh, 51, a freelance trainer in parenting and life skills, and her husband Vincent Ong, 54, who works in logistics, set rules and expectations for their two teenage sons from the time they had smartphones in upper primary school.

These included not having to reply to every single message and finishing their homework before using their phones.

The couple say they respected their sons’ privacy, however, and did not check their phones.

“As parents, we respect them. In turn, they respect our restrictions,” says Mr Ong.

In fact, now he is learning, like many parents, how advanced his kids are when it comes to using apps.

He learnt how to use the app, which lets motorists pay for parking at public carparks through their mobile phones, from his younger son, 15-year-old Harry.


This article was originally published in The Sunday Times on 3 June 2018

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