30 April 2020

What is end-to-end encryption?

girl lying down using phone

You might have heard of end-to-end encryption but not be entirely sure what it means. We explain it for you here and offer some top tips for keeping kids safe.

What is end-to-end encryption?

End-to-end encryption is where only you and the person or people you’re communicating with can view the messages that have been sent. In other words, if you send an encrypted message to your friend, only you and your friend can view that message.

The company who runs the messaging service or app can’t view end-to-end encrypted messages, messages won’t be remotely accessible by police or government when preventing crime, and they can’t be seen by hackers. This means that the message privacy is more secure, but also means they can’t be monitored for dangerous activity.  

What messages can be end-to-end encrypted?

One-on-one messages (between you and one other person) or group chat messages (you and multiple people) can be end-to-end encrypted. This can include written messages, photos, videos, voice messages, audio, documents and calls.

Which apps use it?

End-to-end encryption is mainly used on messaging or chat apps to keep communication between users private. Popular apps that encrypt messages automatically include WhatsApp, Telegram, and Viber (though there are lots more). Some other apps, like Facebook Messenger, have settings which let you choose to encrypt messages or not.

Should my child be using end-to-end encryption apps?

A lot of popular apps are automatically end-to-end encrypted and some are not. What’s most important is how safe your child is on each app, site and game they use, whether it's encrypted or not. This means talking to your child about what they’re sharing, who they’re talking to and how to stay safe.  

Follow our tips below on how to help keep your children safe when using messaging and chat apps.

Top tips for staying safe

Exploring apps, sites and games together is a great way to involve your child in the decision-making process.

Be positive about what you see, but also be open to talking about the things which concern your children online. Ask them what they think is appropriate and what worries them.

Remember to check the age ratings of apps because only children over these ages are allowed to use them. A lot of chat apps are for those aged 13+, like Houseparty and Viber, but others are 16+, like WhatsApp and Telegram. You can also read our advice on age and content ratings

Even if you’re child old enough, you might still feel it’s not appropriate for them. If you decide this, make sure you explain your reasons why.

You might decide it’s ok for your child to use. If so, make sure you follow the tips below to ensure it’s as safe as possible. And work out a time when you’ll next discuss the app.

Messaging and chat apps are a great way for a child to stay in touch with their friends but it’s important both of you are comfortable with who they’re talking to.

Talk to your child about who they’re chatting to and how they know them. Remind them to be conscious of who they’re sharing personal information with and not to share information with people they haven’t met before. This includes information like their name, location, email, phone number and school name.

A lot of messaging and chat apps let you approve or accept contacts before you can chat to them, usually by making your account private. With your child, make sure these settings are in place and show them how to reject requests from people they don’t know.

Even with friends, your child might see something that upsets them. Explore each app to see if there are reporting and blocking features. Show your child how to use these features and talk about situations when they might want to report or block.

Help your child think about what they share online and who sees it. Compare it to what they would be happy to share offline.

You might want to start by asking:

  • What kinds of things do you share online?
  • Should we share everything?
  • What shouldn’t we share?

Use examples that are easy for them to understand: “You shouldn’t give your number to somebody you don't know on the street. Is somebody online you don't know any different?”

Listen to their answers. And be positive and encouraging.

Remind them that they shouldn’t share private things, such as:

  • personal information, like emails, names, phone numbers, location and school names
  • photos of themselves
  • photos of their body, such as sexual photos or videos.

Explain that you understand the internet is a great place to play, create, learn and connect. But remind them they can talk to you if anything upsets or worries them.

Reassure them that you won’t overreact and that you’re always there to support them.

And if they feel like they can’t speak to you, tell them to talk to an adult they trust, like a teacher, or they get support from Childline.