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The Woes of WhatsApp

Morgan Nel | ACSI Assistant Director

In 2009 the world became a much smaller place with the launch of WhatsApp in South Africa. As we all know, it is cheap and text of any length can be sent, as well as voice notes, pictures and video. All of this is fantastic, until it is abused.

With an increase in the use of WhatsApp we are also introduced to the keyboard warriors, highlighting the well-known proverb that the pen is mightier than the sword. The following scenarios are all worth considering in the context of our schools:

Use amongst learners: The pervasive use of WhatsApp among students presents a myriad of challenges for schools, ranging from cyberbullying to privacy concerns. While WhatsApp offers a convenient platform for communication, its implications within educational settings have raised significant legal issues that educators and policymakers must navigate.

A primary challenge schools face is cyberbullying through WhatsApp. With its ease of use and widespread adoption, students often misuse the platform to engage in harmful behaviour, such as harassment, spreading rumours, or sharing inappropriate content. This not only affects the well-being of victims but also disrupts the learning environment and creates tension within the school community. Addressing cyberbullying requires a multifaceted approach that includes education, counselling, and disciplinary measures, but legal constraints sometimes hinder schools’ ability to intervene effectively.

Another pressing concern is the invasion of privacy. WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption, while touted for its security benefits, poses challenges for schools trying to monitor and address misconduct. While schools have a duty to ensure the safety of their students, they must also respect their right to privacy. Striking the right balance between maintaining a safe environment and preserving privacy is a delicate task, especially when dealing with minors.

WhatsApp Groups: Monitoring groups to prevent inappropriate behaviour or ensure compliance with school policies can be challenging. Schools must establish clear guidelines for the use of WhatsApp groups and also provide adequate training for teachers to manage them effectively while adhering to legal standards. The legal landscape surrounding social media use in schools is constantly evolving, further complicating matters for educators. South Africa’s Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA) and the Children’s Act impose obligations on schools to protect students’ personal information and ensure their safety and well-being.

Educating students about responsible digital citizenship and the consequences of their online actions is crucial for fostering a safe and respectful online environment.

Use amongst staff: If you’ve started a WhatsApp group with several colleagues to discuss private or confidential school information, to rant about poor staff treatment, or just to chat about life at school, be very careful. If the conversation takes a nasty turn or the discussion becomes too heated, it can be used by the school as grounds for dismissal. You may think that the group is private, but the group could constitute a public space and the information within this space is fair game – it’s accessible and usable.

Best practice is simple – don’t complain about your school on a public space of any kind, from WhatsApp to Twitter to Facebook.

As believers, we are led by what the Word says in Matthew 5:23 (if someone has something against you) and Matthew 18:15 (if you have something against someone go to them directly).

Negative use amongst the parent body: Handling slander on WhatsApp by a parent in a WhatsApp group requires a careful and proactive approach to mitigate the situation while upholding legal and ethical standards.

Here’s a suggested course of action:

  • Document the Evidence: The school administration should promptly take screenshots or gather evidence of the slanderous messages. Documenting the evidence is crucial for assessing the severity of the situation and formulating an appropriate response.
  • Contact the Parent: The school should initiate a private conversation with the parent who posted the negative messages. This may be done through a direct message on WhatsApp or a phone call. Approach the conversation with empathy and a willingness to understand the parent’s concerns, but firmly address the inappropriate behaviour and its impact on the school community.
  • Request Removal of the Messages: Politely request that the parent remove the inappropriate messages from the WhatsApp group. Emphasise the importance of maintaining a respectful and constructive communication environment within the group.
  • Educate on Group Guidelines: Remind the parent of the group’s guidelines or code of conduct regarding appropriate behaviour and communication. Reinforce the expectations of mutual respect and professionalism among group members.
  • Offer Mediation or Resolution: If the situation warrants it, offer to facilitate a mediated conversation between the parent and any affected parties to address underlying concerns or grievances. Providing a platform for open dialogue can help to resolve conflicts and prevent future incidents.
  • Monitor the Situation: Keep a close eye on the WhatsApp group to ensure that the issue has been resolved satisfactorily and that no further instances of inappropriate language occur. Consider implementing stricter moderation or monitoring measures if necessary to prevent future incidents.
  • Consult Legal Counsel if Necessary: If the slanderous messages have caused significant harm or legal implications, the school may need to seek advice from legal counsel on how to proceed. Legal professionals can provide guidance on potential legal remedies or actions to take to protect the school’s reputation and interests.
  • Communicate with the School Community: Depending on the severity of the incident and its impact on the school community, consider issuing a statement or communication to parents and stakeholders to address the situation transparently. Assure them that the school takes such matters seriously and is taking appropriate action to address them.
  • Review and Update Policies: After resolving the immediate issue, review the school’s policies and guidelines regarding communication platforms such as WhatsApp. Consider updating them to include clearer provisions on acceptable behaviour, consequences for misconduct and procedures for handling similar incidents in the future.

Please visit the policy section on our website to find policies on Data Management and Social Media under the Administration section www.acsi.co.za/acsi-policies/