The way in which Canadians communicate has changed dramatically over the past two decades.
Gone are the days of television ads where companies offered deals to save money on long distance telephone calls. Newcomers are no longer looking for the most efficient pre-paid card inside corner stores. The prevalence of smartphones and laptops has enabled Canadians to turn away from landlines and access a wide range of services that were previously unimaginable.
One of the applications that has altered the communications landscape is WhatsApp. For Canadians who have close friends and family in other cities and countries, having this thumbnail in their device has provided an opportunity to stay in touch without hefty data fees.
Last month, Research Co. and Glacier Media asked Canadians about their relationship with WhatsApp to find out more about what we are doing and what we regret being exposed to.
Almost half of Canadians (45 per cent) told us that they use WhatsApp. As expected, those aged 18 to 34 – members of a generation that grew up with touch screens – are significantly more likely to rely on this application (68 per cent) than their counterparts aged 35 to 54 (52 per cent) and aged 55 and over (28 per cent).
In the mid-1990s, the early adopters of email were able to send messages to friends and family, provided that a suitable internet connection was at hand. It took several years for businesses to realize the value of providing corporate email addresses to all employees.
At this stage in the life of WhatsApp, we seem to be experiencing a similar evolution. Canada’s WhatsApp users say that only 16 per cent of the messages they receive over the course of an average week are work-related; most (84 per cent) are personal. Some companies may have chosen to establish WhatsApp groups – particularly as a way to keep connected during the COVID-19 pandemic – but most of what we are doing when we access this application is related to leisure and not labour.
More than three-in-four Canadian WhatsApp users (76 per cent) are sending text messages “every day” or “a few days a week.” The proportion of heavy users rises to an impressive 91 per cent in British Columbia.
One feature that seems to set WhatsApp apart from regular text messages is the ease in which pictures can be sent and received. More than half of users (55 per cent) are sharing pictures “every day” or “a few days a week”, including 74 per cent of those aged 18 to 34, 55 per cent of those aged 35 to 54 and 33 per cent of those aged 55 and over.
Fewer WhatsApp users in Canada are partaking in two other activities at least a few days a week: making audio phone calls (46 per cent) and making video phone calls (42 per cent). Still, judging by the messages shared on social media last week, some Canadians may have fortuitously stumbled upon these features after their primary cellular network was not available.
Of course, not everything is perfect in digital technology. Almost two-in-five users (38 per cent) acknowledge that they had to block a person on WhatsApp – a proportion that rises to 48 per cent among those aged 18 to 34 and to 52 per cent among Atlantic Canadians.
More than a quarter of WhatsApp users in Canada (27 per cent) experienced the misfortune of being added to a group chat without their consent, including 41 per cent of Quebecers. A slightly smaller proportion of Canadian WhatsApp users (23 per cent) were targeted by a scam, including 26 per cent of British Columbians.
Up to now, we have focused on the realm of interpersonal communication. There is also a significant proportion of Canadians who are depending on WhatsApp to become more informed about their community and the world.
In our survey, just over a third of WhatsApp users in Canada (34 per cent) are sharing news articles through the application “every day” or “a few days a week”. This form of delivery is more widespread among Canadians aged 18 to 34 (41 per cent), Quebecers (40 per cent) and Albertans (39 per cent).
The distribution of links from a seemingly trusted source – such as a friend or a relative – can jeopardize our ability to discern fact from fiction. There is no way to properly vet the information that is shared online. We found that just under one in four Canadian WhatsApp users (24 per cent) claim to have received “fake news” or misinformation through the app.
There is a data point that makes this finding particularly compelling. While one-third of Canadian WhatsApp users aged 18 to 34 (32 per cent) have been exposed to “fake news,” the proportion drops to 24 per cent among those aged 35 to 54 and to 16 per cent among those aged 55 and over.
WhatsApp may be saving Canadians money and time, but it is not immune to the credibility issues that are plaguing other online sources of information. In Canada, the oldest users of the app appear to be having a tougher time discerning between veracity and fabrication.
Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.
Results are based on an online study conducted from June 25 to June 27, 2022, among 1,000 adults in Canada. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region. The margin of error – which measures sample variability – is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.