Why WhatsApp Raises Minimum Age to 16 in Europe Ahead of GDPR

Olivia Jones Last Updated by Olivia Jones on July 17, 2018

WhatsApp is nothing short of the most popular messenger service of all time, with more than 1.5 billion users, which is why Facebook had no problem forking over $19.3 billion to buy in 2014. It is particularly popular worldwide among teenagers as it allows them to text, make voice calls, make video calls, send images, and other media. Not to mention the minimum age to use it is only 13.

What the GDPR Means for WhatApp

On 14 April 2016, the EU adopted the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a historic moment in the legal history of online privacy and data protection for residents of EU. In a nutshell, it gives EU citizens power over how their personal data is used inside EU as well as its export to countries outside of the European bloc. The regulation goes into effect on 25 May 2018 and is the immediate law in EU going forward from that date. It’s a serious matter to get caught breaking these new data rights. EU regulators can fine violators up to 4% of their global profits or €20 million for failing to keep up.

The GDPR move shines the light on WhatsApp and other “teen-friendly” social media services in EU because the legislation reads that the minimum age for individuals to consent to their data being processed is 16.

WhatsApp’s Response to the GDPR

On 25 April 2018, exactly one month shy of GDPR coming into effect, WhatsApp changed its Terms of Service to include the following text:

“If you live in a country in the European Region, you must be at least 16 years old to use our Services or such greater age required in your country to register for or use our Services. If you live in any other country except those in the European Region, you must be at least 13 years old to use our Services or such greater age required in your country to register for or use our Services. In addition to being of the minimum required age to use our Services under applicable law, if you are not old enough to have authority to agree to our Terms in your country, your parent or guardian must agree to our Terms on your behalf.”

WhatsApp has banned children under the age of 16 from using its service unless that child has his or her parents agree to the terms of service for them. The terms go on to say that lying about one’s age or having create a WhatsApp account for you if you are under the age of 16 will lead to your account being closed.

At present, WhatsApp hasn’t given any details about how it will enforce the new policy, other than adding a prompt asking users to verify they are at least 16 years of old when they sign in after the GDPR goes into effect.

Facebook, WhatsApp’s parent company, will go a different route. The social media giant will require EU users between ages 13-15 to nominate a parent to gain permission to share sensitive data or be a recipient of targeted ads.

Accessing WhatsApp with a VPN

For EU teenagers under 16, getting back access to WhatsApp after 25 May could be a struggle. The obvious choice for some might be to simply lie about their age and claim to be at least 16 to maintain control of their account.

This tactic could prove dangerous should WhatsApp begin cross-checking members ages through parent company Facebook.

While WhatsApp is generally used for fun – and the occasional mischief – it also has lots of social redeeming qualities for young people, who can share problems and study tips on it.

Circumventing the new age restriction can be done in a safe, legal manner by employing a virtual private network (VPN). While the best of these cost money, which would put an immediate hamper on their use by the typical 13-to-15 year old, there are many free VPNs as well that are easy to install and use for anyone who’s grown up in the digital age.

VPNs work by creating a secure, encrypted network between your computer and a remote server controlled by the VPN company. For the case of using WhatsApp in EU, teenagers could simply pick a country outside the EU where the same WhatsApp restrictions are not in place. When it reaches the remote server, it is decrypted and sent on to the Internet site of your choice using a new IP address appropriate for that country.

WhatsApp security will see your data coming from a non-EU country and not challenge it with the post-GDPR Terms of Service. Not only will this get back the access to WhatsApp, but it will further protect your data inside the VPN from hackers or cyber-criminals trying to swipe your data.

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Olivia Jones
Olivia has written and edited for big publications and magazines. Her previous position in a cybersecurity firm gives her the edge on developing online security trends.