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“I found it weird a guy I barely knew was sending me porn": Is your WhatsApp group toxic?

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Amelia Tait
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From bitching about your boss to sending unwanted porn, group chats for colleagues, housemates, and friends can quickly become less than friendly 

There was one to organise football games, and there was another for his colleagues to chat shifts. As far as WhatsApp groups go, Kyle’s were pretty tame. But recently, the 26-year-old Londoner was added to a chat for his old friend’s birthday night out. After the party had been and gone, the friend’s friends continued to post in the group. Last month – like many young men across the country – Kyle was sent pornographic WhatsApp videos featuring Love Island contestants.

“I found it weird that a guy I barely knew was sending me porn. Like: ‘Thanks mate, I’ll use this later, nice one!’” says Kyle sarcastically. “But then, when I realised they were stolen home videos, I just felt a bit grim.” 

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Kyle (who has asked to be identified by a pseudonym) was uncomfortable, but he didn’t say so. The group chat is a unique space where people often say things they wouldn’t offline (“do the fucking dishes, I’m sick of your shit”) but where it can be surprisingly hard to speak up if things go wrong.

“I think your fun-ruiner status might be confirmed if you complain about someone sending you pictures of boobs,” says George (also not his real name), who explains his group chat “sometimes gets carried away”. In the past, his friends have sent nude pictures of girls they’ve slept with to the chat, without their consent. Although George says he would never do this, he doesn’t say anything when it happens. 

Group chats, be they on WhatsApp, Messenger, Instagram, Snapchat, or Twitter, are often a force for good. They allow us to stay in touch with family and friends, and have been used to organise everything from stag dos to revolutions. But there’s no denying they can go wrong. Arguments, bitching, and misunderstandings can flourish in these chats. Some people may be too scared to leave, others afraid to type anything because they always get ignored. Over time, things can turn toxic. 

This can have tragic consequences. In February, a Swansea university medical student died by suicide after his WhatsApp messages were posted online by his rugby team. Edward Senior had told his teammates about a “brief relationship” with a fellow student, and was suspended by the university after they posted the messages on social media as a “prank”. 

 “A single beep from my phone can ruin my entire day,” says 25-year-old Mae. One of Mae’s housemates takes pictures of the house and sends them to the housemate group chat (“a misplaced chair, crumbs on the table, she criticises everything”), meaning Mae has trouble concentrating at work. 

“I just get really anxious,” she says. “I don’t even read the messages anymore.”

A few months ago, the housemate posted an “accidental” message in the group. “When is she leaving the house?” she wrote, followed quickly by a “Sorry, wrong chat.” Mae thinks she did this on purpose, to let her know she didn’t like her and wanted her evicted. 

Dr Aaron Balick, author of The Psychodynamics of Social Networking and director of Stillpoint Spaces UK, says that offline, we regulate our behaviour through “interpersonal complexity” – something we can fail to do in group chats.

“Interpersonal complexity means that we are very responsive to each other,” he explains. “If I say something offensive, I will see it in your face, and I may moderate what I am saying. Moving conversations online into Slack or WhatsApp minimises interpersonal complexity making it easier to communicate more difficult things.” This is called the “online disinhibition effect”.

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When she was 17 and working in a luxury retail store, now 22-year-old Laura (not her real name) felt “instant fear” when she received notifications from her colleagues’ group chat. The WhatsApp group was set up to liaise shifts and plan drinks, but when a new manager started “things turned very sour”.

“The new manager wasn’t in the group, so it just became a bitching session,” says Laura now. “They got pretty nasty about her.” Laura was too afraid to leave the group, in case her colleagues started bitching about her. She felt guilty witnessing the cruelty.

“I knew I was wrapped up in something wrong, that I didn’t want to be part of, but felt I couldn’t get out of it.”

Group chats can be so difficult that many people have a second, secret chat to complain about the first. Thomas (who is also identified here by a pseudonym) is the admin of a “main” chat featuring six friends, but also has a separate chat with two of the friends from the group. 

“One of the reasons the second chat still exists is because my ex is in our group of friends and that has an impact,” he explains. Although the group was set up to talk about personal problems and organise events more easily, Thomas admits that “as the forum to bitch is present, it happens a fair bit”.

Although second chats can be a good place to blow off steam, Balick worries that group chats in general mean “people are avoiding difficult face to face conversations and outsourcing them online to make it easier”. Dumping someone online, ghosting someone, or telling your housemate to clean up via text could have lasting repercussions.

“I fear that the consequence we might expect from this, if we’re not careful as a society, is that we will get less good at tolerating difficult emotions in face to face conversations,” says Balick. “This will have serious consequences for how relationships are managed across the board: at work, at home, with friends, and with lovers.” 

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In the meantime, being left out can ruin friendships. A few years ago, 28-year-old Alex struggled when his friends made a group for “all the east London lot”, jokingly saying he wasn’t allowed in because he lived in south London. They would often organise nights out on the chat, meaning Alex missed out.

“Finding out that there was a group chat where they arranged this stuff, that they weren’t allowing me access to, felt like a bit of a kick in the teeth,” he says. “It was like being back at school.”

In real life, Alex struggled to understand in-jokes from the chat, and even now he’s in the group is met with “you had to be there” comments when he asks about old jokes.

“I definitely still hold some resentment towards certain members of that friendship group,” he says now. “Excluding someone from a group chat is essentially excluding them from a friendship group.

“If you accidentally miss someone out, fine – apologise and rectify your mistake. If you leave someone out on purpose for no discernible reason, you’re just an asshole.”

Toxic group chats are one of those problems caused by the internet that don’t, really, have an easy solution. It can be difficult to be a lone voice of dissent, and exiting the group can cause extra problems. The answer, simply, is to talk to your housemates, colleagues, and friends the same way you would offline.

“Just be a decent person whether you’re talking to someone via text or face to face,” says Mae. “It’s free to have manners.” 

(Illustration:Gary Ogden