WhatsApp – alongside a number of other major social media companies – recently announced changes to its Terms of Service and Privacy Policies.

This was done as the European Union is currently updating its privacy laws (known as the General Data Protection Regulation -or GDPR) to require greater transparency on how people’s information is used online.

As part of the changes, WhatsApp has updated its age restrictions for using the service:

  • If you live in a country in the European Region, you must be at least 16 years old to use WhatsApp.
  • If you live in any other country except those in the European Region, you must be at least 13 years old to use WhatsApp.

This means that the current age restriction for WhatApp in South Africa remains 13 years of age, with anyone younger requiring a parent or guardian to agree on their behalf.

However, this may change soon, according to Verlie Oosthuizen, head of Social Media Law at Shepstone Wylie.

Speaking to BusinessTech, Oosthuizen said that one of the key components of South Africa’s incoming Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA) is aligning South Africa’s privacy laws with international standards.

“The Information Regulator has indicated that it will be working closely with other data protection regulators and is likely to follow the lead of the EU and UK,” Oosthuizen said.

“The POPIA is very similar to the EU legislative instruments – although the GDPR is much more comprehensive.

“The EU will only allow the transfer of data of EU citizens to countries that they believe have adequate data protection provisions, and so they are really demanding that South Africa has the same types of restrictions.”

“This means that South Africans can expect the Information Regulator to be strongly influenced by the GDPR going forward,” she said.

What if my child accepts anyway?

Oosthuizen explained that when a South African child who is below the required age accepts the terms and conditions, the contract will not be valid.

“The contract is void and WhatsApp can terminate the services,” she said.

“The terms of service absolve WhatsApp from any wrongdoing in all instances (whether this is legally enforceable would be dependent on the case). However, if a child under the age restriction uses the services, it is a void contract and the service will certainly assert that they cannot be found liable for wrongdoing.”

Blindly accepting terms and conditions

Oosthuizen also said that blindly accepting any terms and conditions (whether it be for WhatsApp or another service), means that you are as ‘bound’ as you would be in any other contract, and there are only very specific circumstances in which you may be released.

“Those circumstances are quite rare and people would be well advised to take the time to read at least one set of ‘T&C’s’ so that they know the kinds of rights that they are handing over,” she said.

“People need to remember that the use of social media platforms is not compulsory. They provide a free service and you need to abide to the terms and conditions if you want to utilise that service.”