The parents’ WhatsApp for my children’s school is driving me crazy – but I refuse to give it up

The class WhatsApp is a minefield – just like more public forms of social media (Getty)
The class WhatsApp is a minefield – just like more public forms of social media (Getty)

Ping. I used to dread the noise of the class WhatsApp until I muted it. It can happen at any time day or night, announcing a message: a lost sock, a conspiracy theory or a parent rallying against some injustice, such as the children not being able to wear their PE kits to school – “please sign the petition”. It can send me into a panic: “Oh no, they need jolly jars for the school fair by tomorrow!” I yell, thinking, how am I supposed to find jars and fill them with brightly coloured sweets by then?

It can be so random – like a video of a mum singing in a cornfield for the new classical album she’s proudly put together, recommendations for nannies and babysitters, or a copy of a booking confirmation for a restaurant along with a message like “Made reservation inside for 6. Can grab outside tables if available”. Followed by: “Sorry wrong chat – that’s what I get for trying to multitask.” A dad sent an entire Google doc with his work presentation for a top-secret Christmas advert to Class 3 parents.

Parents like me rely on class WhatsApp groups to tell us what is happening and when; although for most of us it’s the bane of our lives, it’s also highly entertaining. That’s why I love and hate the class WhatsApp – and I can’t give it up.

For some mums, however, the parent WhatsApp chats are doing more harm than good – causing burn-out, paranoia and insecurity. One dedicated mum showed me 90 unread messages for the charity school quiz night, telling me she’s on a staggering 15 class chats because she’s a class rep and on the PTA. “My husband is so mad he says he’s lost me to WhatsApp,” she tells me.

These group chats are an endless source of stress for many – personally, I just don’t keep up with them. The sheer number of messages is unmanageable for any working parent. I really struggle around the parent book club in which select parents read a book and message about how they are getting on with it. It’s like a full-time job I could do without.

It’s especially problematic when you have more than one child at a school as you end up juggling between class messages – and innumerable birthday parties.

Geri Halliwell-Horner’s Instagram post wishing Mel B happy birthday accidentally included instructions for her team in the caption (Getty)
Geri Halliwell-Horner’s Instagram post wishing Mel B happy birthday accidentally included instructions for her team in the caption (Getty)

I declined the offer to join a WhatsApp group called “Monday problem?” last week as I felt I would be creating a problem by putting myself in the firing line for emergency pickups and drops offs if a parent is held up at the office. Of course, it could work in my favour, if I needed help picking up Lola, eight, and Liberty, six, as the mum inviting me pointed out eagerly, but the thought of being added to yet another tempestuous group chat was unbearable.

I’ve already been in the middle of a marital bust-up on the group chat I’m on with a couple down the road – we share drop-offs to school. The wife publicly shamed her husband on it for not coming home that night – which meant he missed his turn doing drop off that morning.

But the worst is when you offend the whole group by accident – as I did when I defaced a photograph of another person’s child at Christmas when the whole reception class posted festive shots of their children. I am not alone in social media cock ups – I mean, look at Geri Halliwell-Horner who wished her former Spice Girl bandmate Mel B a happy 49th birthday in May with a series of 1990s throwback pictures and a caption with instructions for her team that was posted to her 1.4m followers: “Sent images to Pippa and this wording asked her to tweak where needed. ‘Happy birthday @officialmelb! Hope you have an amazing day!’”

It was a mortifying blunder – Horner’s fans mocked her for the gaffe. I was mum shamed for mine. Unfortunately, because it was Christmas Day, I hadn’t been reading the class messages – but at about 10pm, I got a text from a mum friend saying, “Have you seen the class WhatsApp?”

I looked and to my absolute horror there seemed to be multi-coloured scribbles all over a child’s face like I’d gone mad with graffiti tools. The defaced photo was attached to a message: “Why would somebody do this?”

I felt sick to my stomach. Was this really my doing? By scrolling back a bit through the scores of messages, I saw that it genuinely was the case – but how? I saw another message: “Have you considered that maybe it’s a mistake before you jump to conclusions?” and another accusatory message: “Well, why hasn’t she replied then?”

I sat down and took a deep breath. The messages kept flooding in. I suddenly remembered that I’d passed my phone to my then five-year-old daughter Liberty, to show her the photos – God knows what she pressed but she has no concept of photo edit apps. I calmly sent a message to the group: “Sorry Liberty did it by mistake and I didn’t see the messages until now.” The drama was finally over in one fell swoop – but I felt deeply hurt.

It proved that the class WhatsApp is a minefield – just like more public forms of social media. We’ve all made epic blunders – and then cringed in horror. Earlier this year, Barbra Streisand commented publicly on Melissa McCarthy’s Instagram when she saw a photo of the actor attending a gala with film director Adam Shankman, saying: “Give him my regards, did you take Ozempic?”

Barbra Streisand commented publicly on Melissa McCarthy’s Instagram asking if she’d taken Ozempic (ActBlue/Biden Inaugural Committe)
Barbra Streisand commented publicly on Melissa McCarthy’s Instagram asking if she’d taken Ozempic (ActBlue/Biden Inaugural Committe)

WhatsApp – like other forms of social media – is a breeding ground for insecurity and paranoia, says Professor Phil Reed, a psychology lecturer at Swansea University who researches internet addiction. “It has all of the same benefits and drawbacks as any other digital communication, so it can be associated with all of the things that other social media is associated with,” Reed tells me.

“If there are special problems with it, they may be linked to its more text-based nature, as we’ve found those types of digital communication tend to attract narcissists.” That’s not to say everybody who uses text is a narcissist, she adds, but it does seem to attract more of these sorts of people than other forms of social media.

“What we found previously is that while posting selfies on visual-based social media tend to make people more narcissistic over time, people who are more narcissistic tend to use more text-based social media over time.” It’s difficult to tell why this happens exactly, she says.

“Possibly it’s because the lack of immediate face-to-face feedback allows them to say things that would be censored in other social settings, which can help them to feed their need for empowerment,” she claims.

I recall a recent storm on my daughter’s class 3 WhatsApp recently over the issue of what is being taught in sex education – such as gender reassignment. I wanted to take cover as traffic on the group chat broke all records, before dying away again about four hours later.

It’s a phenomenon known as “swarming” according to Professor Reed, which can “generate a lot of group anxiety and hysteria”.

“The main issue with swarming,” she explains, “is that existing anxieties [in a person] are reflected back to the group, like a mirror, or an echo chamber, making them worse and worse.”

Natalie Costa, a children’s confidence and parent coach in the UK and founder of Power Thoughts, a coaching and educational programme that supports children’s mental wellbeing, says the “agony” of school WhatsApp groups is huge for parents and the stress and “comparisonitis” is something that often comes up in her sessions for parents.

While being part of group has its plus side, she says – such as providing a sense of community and belonging, a space where all the relevant school information is shared, as well as providing connection to other parents and an opportunity to build friendships, being on it can produce the same feelings of having to keep up with the Joneses.

“It can be a breeding ground for Fomo [fear of missing out] and ‘comparisonitis’ – causing parents to feel like they can’t miss out and if they do, what would this say about them and their parenting?” says Costa, who has many clients with a deep belief that they are not a “good enough” parent. “Seeing everyone else in the group participate in events can pile on the pressure for parents to conform and participate too.”

Comparison and worry can also set in, she says, when parents are discussing exams, school entrance tests, and tutors. “This can be very stressful to navigate as parents may be left worrying about whether they are doing enough.” Parents can also feel the pressure thanks to the blue tick, she notes – “the almost unwritten rule that if I’ve read the message I have to respond in that moment.

“This can be especially dysregulating for our nervous system – as you always feel as if you’re in fight or flight,” she says. It can also be addictive. “Each time a notification goes off, or you receive a message, it results in a dopamine hit – so we keep coming back for more... adding more to the mental load.”

Another added challenge, Costa points out, is that the school WhatsApp group can feel like you’re the one back on the playground. I couldn’t agree more. I have to admit, however, that regardless of the playground politics, I’m not giving up the class WhatsApp – it’s simply too much fun. But as Costa points out, it’s about being mindful of how much energy you should give it. That’s why I will just dip in and out – and wait for the best bits.