Chloe* moved to the UK around ten years ago. She came here to study, but after meeting her boyfriend (who would later become her husband), she decided to stay. With relatives back in Europe who weren’t that into Skype, they decided to create a family WhatsApp to keep in touch.
Admittedly, her relationship with her close relatives was a little fraught, due to their opposing political views. Chloe would often lurk in the chat without sending any messages, trying to avoid conflict when others shared things she disagreed with. Until one day, she saw something that she couldn’t ignore.
“I normally keep quiet,” Chloe tells me over email. “However, couldn't keep my mouth shut after reading what they had said [about migrants], and I called them out on it.”
It didn’t go down well. “My brother then told me to 'fuck off', that he is ashamed of having me in 'their' family, which my sister agreed with and my parents said nothing about,” she continues. “He then proceeded to remove me from the group.”
The family WhatsApp group is a modern phenomenon, borne out of a digital age that makes instant messaging one of the easiest ways to communicate. While group chats were once reserved for your school mates or five-a-side team, the family WhatsApp group now takes the meme-filled, casual messaging service and uses it to keep up to date with your fam. It removes the conventional effort of having to visit or, God forbid, ring your parents. According to a 2019 Ofcom report, the number of voice calls made in the UK has fallen, so it’s likely that a lot of family chit-chat has moved to messaging platforms like WhatsApp. Indeed, 74 percent of people surveyed for the 2018 Ofcom report on communications agreed that “being online helps keep me close to/in touch with friends and family”.
At its best, the family WhatsApp brings you closer to your family, even if it can be cripplingly mundane (please, dad, no more BBC Sports clips). But for some, challenging family relationships are intensified when played out via instant messaging.
This is how Chloe felt when her brother used their disagreement to cut her out of their WhatsApp group. “No one in my family got in contact with me at all, until my dad contacted me about a week later regarding something else,” says Chloe. “I tried to discuss it explaining I would quite like an apology, however, my dad didn't really engage with that. He did ask me if I wanted to be added back and he could ask my brother to do so. I refused. I have not spoken with either my brother or my sister since, and my parents are pretending it never happened.”
She adds that WhatsApp has caused a break-down in communication with her relatives. “[The relationship] wasn't really great before, but now there is much less communication and I am no longer aware of what is happening in their lives. I'm still quite upset about it.”
Clearly, WhatsApp groups can exacerbate existing family tensions. But for those who enjoy strong relationships with relatives they can, frankly, be jokes.
“My aunt created a family WhatsApp group to announce that she was divorcing my uncle,” Leila Thompson tells me. “The group only contained members of his family and she did this without telling him while they were on holiday together. [She] just sent a message along the lines of ‘just letting you know X and I are getting divorced. It’s been terrible and he’s been terrible’.”
How did her family respond? “One person did use a lot of crying emojis,” says Thompson, "which I didn’t think was that appropriate.”
Nazneen Jassat tells me that a bunch of her female relatives set up an all-women family WhatsApp in reaction to an all-male group their relatives had set up.
“It was brought about as a rebellion against a men's group chat,” she tells me over the phone. “All the women kind of found out and they were like, 'No, how can the men have one?' so they created this group chat with all our nieces, cousins and aunties from all over the world.”
While the group began as a humorous in-joke between Jassat's female relatives, it ended up providing some serious support. “You can reach out [as] you know your aunties and cousins are all going to be there for you,” she says. “Even though it's a cringey WhatsApp group, you kind of know that they've got your back.”
This became particularly relevant when the group had to deal with the loss of a family member: “We have had a few deaths in the family – really close people,” says Jassat. “My cousin's mum passed away and that was a really tragic moment for us in the family, but it was really nice because all of our cousins came together and we would check up on her on the group chat and also outside of WhatsApp, which is really nice.”
Jassat was able to find support from her extended family members, aided by a WhatsApp group. But what about when your “family” doesn’t quite fit nuclear conventions?
PB was living at her parents' house, helping care for her stepsister who was ill, when she saw that she had been added to a new WhatsApp group. Grabbing her phone, she quickly realised that it had been created by her biological dad, who she had barely spoken to in the last few years. It contained his new wife, and one of PB’s brothers – but not the other, who her biological dad had disowned.
“My first thought was, 'How the fuck dare you think you have the right to have a family WhatsApp group',” PB tells me over the phone. “You've not spoken to me for two years. I don't have a family WhatsApp group with my actual family.”
PB found the group chat with her biological father very emotionally challenging. It left her upset for days. “Any time this fucking WhatsApp group would pop up, it would break me for about a week,” she explains. “I had it for ages because I didn't know what to do… and it would just be really awkward if I left. Then it was awkward because I never replied, I just ended up lurking in the background.”
For all the benefits of instant messaging, technology can’t solve IRL relationship issues. Reliance on digital communication can even leave us feeling less close to our family, if those chats start to replace meaningful real-world interactions. While the 2018 Ofcom report found that people say technology helps them keep in touch, the majority also agreed that “the use of internet-connected devices can interrupt face-to-face communications.” Just because you know what your mum’s Bitmoji looks like, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve grown closer.
In the end, PB’s "family" group chat with her biological dad reminded her that something needed to be done about the relationship. “[The group] sort of petered out,” says PB, “and I got in touch with my granny, and decided to disown my dad.”
“The WhatsApp group helped me in a way because I realised any time he said anything to me it just made me [feel] wrong,” she concludes. “It's made me happier.”
*Name has been changed.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.