WhatsApp. It is the best of us, and the worst of us. It is a place where we can chat instantly with family across continents, share jokes with old school friends, arrange holidays and weddings and dinner dates. It unites such disparate strangers as the parents of children attending the same school, sports club, scouts group. It allows school friends, college friends, old work friends to stay in touch long after they have moved out of each other's day-to-day lives. It is no overstatement to say that, in the 11 years since the encrypted messaging platform was invented by two former Yahoo employees, it has revolutionised how we communicate.
And boy do we communicate. Last month WhatsApp hit two billion users globally. Here in Ireland, according to the latest Ipsos MRBI Social Messaging Quarterly, 79pc of Irish adults have WhatsApp on their phones, and three quarters use it daily.
And, as we become increasingly isolated within our own homes ahead of the anticipated surge in Civid-19 infections, the numbers will continue to rise. Because as a mechanism for staying in touch and disseminating information - and misinformation, WhatsApp is peerless.
Like most parents, I heard of the possible closure of the schools to slow the spread of Covid-19 at least 24 hours before it was announced by the Government - on a WhatsApp group. It was there I read the plea by a CUH paediatrician that we keep our kids at home, and watched the clip of the Galway doctor who reiterated that plea after receiving it. All were subsequently verified by journalists and it was on the advice of these doctors that I formulated my parenting plan for the duration of the schools closure.
It is inevitable that as the Coronavirus spreads, fake news follows. It also was on WhatsApp that I read about the four young people in a serious condition at CUH, after taking ibuprofen whilst infected with Coronavirus. And where I read about the self-test one can administer to check if one's lungs have been damaged by the virus. And it is where I heard that the defence forces were on standby for the imminent code red lock down. And while all the aforementioned were strongly contested and debunked by the relevant bodies, compounded by a tweet from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pleading with people not to share unsubstantiated Coronavirus-related content on WhatsApp, suspicions and misinformation inevitably linger and parenting groups all over the country continue to debate the safety of ibuprofen for fever.
Even before the pandemic, it was impossible to rear children without WhatsApp. It has completely colonised child-related communications and no party, after-school activity, match, day out or play date has happened outside it for years.
Pros and cons
And WhatsApp parenting has its own peculiar pros and cons.
The cons run from the mild, run-of-the-mill WhatsApp anxieties like - did you get the tone right when responding to the message from the neighbourhood mum who suggested that there should be a curfew for playing on the street as she liked to put her kids to bed at seven? Why was your post to the class group that your daughter had nits met with deafening silence and not grateful remarks lauding your altruism? Could you not have thought twice before sending the joke about spreading Coronavirus in response to the reminder to buy tin whistles? Why aren't the other mums thanking you for sending yet another link to home schooling resources?
Psychologist Dr Malie Coyne explains it thus: "Unlike a face-to-face conversation, when communicating through WhatsApp, it can be difficult to know how one is expected to behave: Are you replying quickly enough when the sender knows their message has been seen (the infamous blue tick)? How often should you comment in a group? Have you shown enough sympathy with the right emoji? The problem is that you don't hear someone's tone of voice, see facial expressions or body language, which can give rise to massive amounts of misinterpretation."
Add to that the fact that you hardly know these people, and probably couldn't pick out more than 20pc of them in a line-up.
At the more extreme end of the con continuum is the misdirected message, which cannot, unfortunately, be explained away as misinterpretation. Take the dad who sent a d**k pic to the parents group of his kids GAA club, and was only made aware of it when he received a message from a fellow dad asking him to take it down. Or the mum who took a screen grab of the anxiety-ridden Coronavirus-related messaging from one of her mummy groups, captioned it pejoratively for the amusement of another of her groups, and sent it straight back to the group from which it originated.
And of course, there is the downright bizarre. One mum friend tells a story of a parent in her child's class who posted a link to a news piece about a school in France that had refused to consider requests from Muslim parents to remove pork from the canteen menu, with, 'Yes! Victory!' and a punching the air emoji. Followed, inevitably, a few mins later by 'Sorry, wrong group...'
"Which made me wonder," laughed my friend. "What was the 'right' group? 'White Supremacist Moms'? 'Parents For Pork'."
The pros are pretty obvious. Aside from the obvious logistical benefits of being able to message all relevant parties with one click, parenting, particularly in the early years, can be a fraught and lonely time. What better than a tribe of people going through the same thing at the same time, available to you night and day?
Mum-of-one Karen Murphy is a frequent user and strong advocate of WhatsApp as a parenting support. She belongs to a group for Single Mothers By Choice (SMBC) and she is also a member of a WhatsApp for mothers in her local area.
The SMBC group is particularly important for Karen. She and some other solo mums who had met through Frolo - an App connecting single parents to others in their local area, came up with the idea of a WhatsApp group during a walk.
"We have bonded over the fact of how we became mothers, we all have children of roughly the same age, and it is just nice to be able to connect and chat. To a degree it is power in numbers - you feel supported when you know that you are connected to, very locally, mums who had similar parenthood journeys. I feel it is really important for my son that I normalise this conversation as much as possible, so knowing that there are other children of the same age, with mums who made decisions to have children on their own reassures me that my son isn't going to be the only person in the neighbourhood with this kind of family background."
Karen is still a member of the general maternity group she joined when her now toddler son was three months old - there was a significant waitlist as the group is constantly hovering around the WhatsApp group member limit of 256.
"It is a brilliant group - I am on it every other day if not every day. There can be anything from 20 to 150 messages a day - covering anything from 'I am displaying these symptoms, do you think it is mastitis'; to 'my radiator is leaking and I need an emergency plumber!' I have been able to get names of builders, plumbers and architects. And because things are covered far beyond babies, I don't want to leave. It is great for local events, advice on good places to go with kids on holiday - but also things like neighbourhood watch."
Clinical Psychologist Claire Hayes agrees that such groups can be useful.
"They can be very helpful if people are honest - if someone says, 'I haven't slept, I have been up all night with the baby, I want to scream' - that can be comforting to others in the same position."
On the flip side, if contact never moves beyond the virtual, she believes that for some, feeling deeply connected to people they have never met can increase isolation. And if you have mums in the group who are more performative than supportive (we all know one!), it can create anxiety.
"Anxiety is spiralling anyway - but WhatsApp is another tool that feeds into our sense of anxiety, which generally comes from one of two places. Did we make a mistake or are we not good enough? WhatsApp is a wonderful tool to reinforce these anxieties."
Psychotherapist Stella O'Malley agrees.
"Technology has brought with it a whole range of new ways to become anxious. Once we send a WhatsApp message, we are immediately vulnerable to being 'ghosted'. It's a rational fear as this is the method that many people use to discard unwanted peers. We have built a complex etiquette around our social media messaging that makes for a relentless pressure to answer every email, every WhatsApp, every message that comes to us across the various platforms and it means that many of us feel permanently 'on' as a result.
"We have become communication junkies but it's all about the output - we are disregarding the equally important input - the need to listen and understand others. In many ways, all this communication creates a false intimacy."
This false sense of intimacy and perhaps the fact that WhatsApp is encrypted end to end - meaning that the only people who can see a message are the sender and the sendee - appears to give users a false sense of security.
Last year it was reported that an Irish senior executive was fired in 2018, along with seven of his UK-based colleagues, for sharing offensive messages about fellow employees on a WhatsApp group of senior managers at a large company. The messages were examined by the company after a protected disclosure by another staff member. The Irishman appealed the sacking, claiming at the Workplace Related Commission that his exemplary record and mitigating factors weren't taken into account. He gave evidence that he stayed in the group as it was a place where managers shared ideas and he feared leaving would mean he was out of the loop. He said he felt pressure to contribute or he would not be seen as trustworthy. He was awarded €7,000 by the commission, though they ruled that he contributed to his dismissal by posting the offensive messages.
Even more frightening is the fact that a career can be destroyed by being the recipient of a WhatsApp message. A woman in Dublin was convicted this year of possessing child pornography, making it impossible for her to pursue her dream of a career in childcare, after she had been sent a clip depicting a child being abused on WhatsApp. The woman deleted the video as soon as she realised what it was, but unbeknownst to her it remained on her phone and was discovered during an unrelated investigation on her home.
And there is the recent case in England, of a decorated police officer who was prosecuted for receiving indecent material featuring a child on WhatsApp. The clip, which the officer claimed was unopened and unwatched, had been sent to her by her sister purportedly in an attempt to have the perpetrator caught. The judge accepted that the video hadn't been watched and that there was no sinister intent in sending the video, and yet the officer is now a convicted sex offender with her career in ruins.
Criminal content aside, it is astounding what some people consider appropriate to share to large groups of people, some of whom are no more than passing acquaintances. Most, if not all of the men I spoke to for this piece, reported being in at least one group - be it work pals, a sports-related group or a group of friends - where they received unsolicited porn.
Dave (not his real name) says that he regularly receives unwanted pornographic pics and clips from WhatsApp acquaintances. "There is one guy in particular, we used to work together 20 years ago when we were starting out, and one of the other lads started a WhatsApp group for us to keep in touch. Most of the stuff that gets posted is pretty normal - comments about the rugby, shoutouts for pints, and then in the middle of all the normal messages this guy will post a picture of an old lad with a sheep, or something else equally strange and pornographic. I had to turn the auto-save function off as my wife threatened to ring him, or post into the group pretending to be me, if she saw one more porn pic in my gallery."
Why not ask him to stop?
"I'm not going to do that. What would the lads think?"
Or leave the group?
"But I like the group. It reminds me of starting out, of the good old days."
And perhaps this is the real reason that we are addicted to the messaging app. We are, all of us, complex multi-faceted creatures and WhatsApp allows us to embody all the many different parts of ourselves on one platform - we can relive our childhoods with school pals, trade reminiscences with college buddies, stay in touch with the family, bitch and share jokes with our most trusted friends, reconnect with old colleagues and forge connections with the new people that come into our lives. Just be careful that you are messaging with the right alter ego.
Did we ever tell you about the GAA dad who sent the d**k pic?
Generally found in the family group, this new mum or dad suffers from Precious Firstborn Syndrome and posts multiple pics of their offspring and long, long videos of junior reaching each milestone.
Causes shockwaves in the family WhatsApp group by dropping misogynistic jokes and dodgy pictures into the otherwise wholesome feed of baby pictures, reports of children's activities and other family-related fare
Prone to long rambling and often formal messages largely irrelevant to the family group, featuring personal medical updates and in-depth reports on golf games, the weather, bridge tournaments, and community births, marriages and deaths.
The porn bomber
So so clueless, always male and found in large friend groups, prone to posting graphic clips. Lol
Always the one to suggest meet ups when the whole point of WhatsApp groups is that you can keep in contact and maintain friendships without making any effort at all.
Generally found on school groups, loves to complain about the most innocuous requests from the teacher/weight of the schoolbags/amount of homework/ and so on, Currently complaining about having to do the teacher's job while they are on 'paid leave'
The humble bragger
Most effective on maternity groups when participants are feeling most vulnerable. Posts about how hard it is for her that her 9-month-old is walking/talking/reading or how she can't keep up with her school age child's quest for knowledge now that school is closed
Features on neighbourhood groups and school-related groups mostly, regularly posting about suspicious white vans and strange men with beards lurking around the kids
The fake news spreader
Particularly active at times like the present - 'debunks domestic experts with spurious online sources. Before the pandemic, it was all about the dangers of vaccines and the benefits of detox.