Health & Wellness

Discovering Digital Chat

Video chatting and social media can help us keep in touch as we all shelter at home

By Wendy Haaf

Photo: iStock/fizkes.


Amanda’s introduction to digital chat was a bit of a jolt. She was in bed one night, scrolling through her social-media account on her new smartphone—a gift from her kids, all of whom live at a distance—when a voice suddenly began emanating from it. “Who is that?” she asked. “Mom, it’s Ted—is everything okay?”

Her fright and surprise soon gave way to embarrassment when she learned that her son could see her—her hair in curlers and her face glistening with night cream—because she had inadvertently initiated a video call.

Getting started with one of the many digital apps and platforms that can enable us to stay in touch with friends and family needn’t be so awkward or disconcerting. And the prospect shouldn’t fill you with angst about keeping important or sensitive personal information out of the reach of thieves and scam artists, as long as you take a few precautions.

The benefits can go beyond the joy of getting instant access to photos of a new grandchild who lives across the ocean or watching her take her first few steps via video. Social media can help strengthen our social connections and offer mental stimulation, and some evidence suggests it may help reduce isolation and depressive symptoms, as well as possibly mitigating chronic pain.

However, even if you’re already adept at regular text messaging (a.k.a. SMS), getting started in other forms of digital chat can be daunting, beginning with knowing what to consider when choosing a platform to best suit your needs.

“People are often overwhelmed by the options, and everyone from the owners of Facebook to the owners of Apple has a vested interest in getting you to pick their product,” notes Samantha Mills, the assistant manager of program-planning and evaluation, programming, and learning services at the Vancouver Public Library, which offers a range of classes in digital essentials. We asked Mills and three other people with relevant expertise to share tips on selecting a virtual chat application, as well as pointers on some of the steps you can take to protect your privacy while chatting online.

Choices to Make

One thing to consider when choosing a platform is which one the people you want to connect with are already using. “Check with your friends and family,” suggests Sarah Felkar, the head of technology at the West Vancouver Memorial Library. Sometimes the app will depend on where they live. For example, an app called Telegram is popular in British Columbia’s Persian community because that’s what many people back home in Iran are using, while WeChat is the most widespread platform in China.

Which half of the digital world you inhabit—Apple or Android—can also play a role. If everyone in your circle uses a Mac, iPad, or iPhone, FaceTime and iMessage may be your go-tos. “It’s part of the DNA—the ecosystem—of Apple,” notes Toronto retiree Jack Mlynek, “so it’s a little bit easier.” On the other hand, many of us, Mlynek included, have friends and family members in both camps. “My wife and I, and my daughter in England, have iPhones,” Mlynek says, “so we use iMessage” in addition to FaceTiming with his 10-month-old grandson. “Whereas our other two kids, both of whom live in Toronto, are on Android.”

In these circumstances, agreeing on an option that works across the Apple/Android divide can simplify matters. Mills, for example, who is the sole Android user in her family, recently persuaded family members to adopt Signal. “It’s a great one for mixed-platform group chats,” she explains. Similar options include WhatsApp, Viber, and Skype.

The level of expertise required to download, install, and use a particular product, too, is important.

“WhatsApp and Signal are fairly easy to set up and use,” Felkar says. She adds that the librarians who teach classes on the subject at her library offer a piece of advice only slightly in jest: the least technically skilled person should get to pick the platform.

Another factor that may come into play is the type of device you find easiest or most convenient to use. For instance, if you’re a whiz with a regular keyboard, the computer may be the best vehicle for text chats. “One advantage of Facebook Messenger is that it’s really easy to set up on a tablet—if that’s your primary device,” Felkar notes.

What about privacy and security? For communicating with people you don’t know well or haven’t met (say, when you’re listing an item for sale on a service such as Kijiji), it’s safest to stick with a channel that doesn’t require sharing your phone number, such as Facebook Messenger, advises Elias Puurunen, the author of Beyond Passwords: Secure Your Business (Northern HCI Solutions, 2019). One of the strengths of applications such as Facebook Messenger, he adds, is that “usually for someone to start a call with you, they have to already have your phone number.”

Another check in the “plus” column for Apple is security. “One of the safest options for being online is to use an iPhone or iPad,” Puurunen says. “Those devices have good privacy features”—not least of these is that if one is stolen, you can remotely erase everything on it. On the other hand, some people have ideological issues with Apple. According to Slate magazine’s 2020 edition of “The Evil List,” critics say the company helps the Communist Party of China spy on its citizens.

“Signal and Telegram are probably some of the best when it comes to encryption,” Felkar says, and she’s not alone in her opinion. In a January 31 post on the website Digital Trends, tech journalists Simon Hill and Simon Chandler named Signal, Telegram, and Viber among the Top 5 in terms of security, referring to Signal’s encryption as “military-grade.” Moreover, Felkar says, “Signal is not owned by any of the big companies.”

By contrast, while WhatsApp also has encryption, it has violated Canadian privacy laws in the past “by forcing many of its users to grant access to their entire address book in order to use it,” the CBC reported in January 2013. In addition, WhatsApp recently was purchased by Facebook, which ranked second on Slate’s “The Evil List” due to its history of data breaches and the fact that the company seems to prioritize growth over user safety. Even Puurunen, who grades the media juggernaut more leniently on security, points out that “they’re mining your data. If you’re not paying for a service, you should assume that privacy comes second.”

Once you’ve weighed all of these elements and settled on which one of the various players you’d like to try, you can take further steps to safeguard your privacy. “The biggest concern with any online service is how much information you are sharing,” Puurunen says, “not just with the service but with other people.” He recommends carefully configuring the privacy settings on the social-media apps and services you use and regularly reviewing them, since companies may not always notify you of changes. Be sure to read the user agreement carefully to understand how the company will use your data, and to learn if it will be shared with other parties. (Of course, as with anything online, it’s safest to avoid posting anything you wouldn’t be comfortable sharing publicly.)

Providing only the minimum amount of information to set up an account—for example, using an e-mail address but no phone number—also limits your exposure. And there’s no reason that all of the information you do share—say, your birth-date—must be accurate. “We tell people to consider the risk versus the reward,” Mills says. For example, when you share your location with Facebook, one of the rewards is more personalized search results, but “that data can be used to target ads at you, or be used by the company to learn more about habits in your area or demographic.”

You can also create a free e-mail account that you use only for setting up chat apps and social-media accounts. Creating a unique, strong password for each application is another must. If you can’t face the prospect of setting up a password manager, “it’s okay to write it down,” perhaps in an address book, “and keep it on your person,” Felkar says, as most hacking is done at a distance anyway. It’s also important to ensure you always have the latest versions of your system software and applications by downloading updates as soon as they’re released, since updates are often security patches.

Finally, there’s no shame in getting help to set up an account or learn the ropes—your local library is a logical place to start. Many run regular workshops, classes, and drop-in sessions on various aspects of digital-media use. Even if your local branch doesn’t, librarians can usually guide you nonetheless and connect you with other resources.

Here are three other advantages of using your library as a jumping-off point: no need to impose on your kids; the reassurance that many other people are equally in need of assistance; and the knowledge that librarians are unbiased, since, unlike your Internet provider or the staff at the Genius Bar, their livelihood doesn’t depend on selling a product or service. In fact, providing this kind of assistance is part of a librarian’s raison d’être. “Librarians are about helping to connect people with the right information and helping them understand the implications of the information they’re using or sharing,” Samantha Mills says, “and that has continued into the digital age.” Library websites, too, are a treasure trove of information.

So dive in. Before you know it, you’ll confidently be arranging a video chat so you can see your new grandchild, sending group voice memos to arrange a family birthday party, and messaging back and forth with a pal who’s house-sitting while you’re holidaying half a world away.


Resources (Search for “The Little Black Book of Scams, 2nd edition.”)