There are now many ways to speak to people online. You can call, video call, email and more. These all have their pros, cons and uses, but something they have in common is they require some real focus and effort. They can also be quite formal.

Instant messaging is a quick and casual way to communicate online. It allows you to send short messages to your friends and family in a way that you can fit it easily around your daily life. You also don't need the other person to be free at that moment. So, you can both have a conversation without needing to set aside or plan in time. You can message and read your messages at a time and in a place that suits you.

In this lesson, we'll help you to understand more about instant messages, so you feel better prepared to choose the right services for you. We'll also cover the basics of setting up and using instant messaging too.


  • Know what instant messages are and the benefits of sending them.
  • Feel more able to choose a service that will suit your needs.
  • Learn how to start setting up your instant messaging services.
  • Begin to use the services to talk to your friends and family online.

Read time

15 mins

Chapter 1


Read time

3 mins

A quick way to share information

Instant messages are a quick way to chat and keep in touch with friends and family. They can be sent back and forth between just two people, or you can set up a group chat.

People don't expect you to respond to instant messages straight away. They are usually used to keep an open channel of conversation with the people. So, for example, the messages between you and your friend might switch between a stream of messages written all in the same 10-minute period to the odd message here and there over the course of a week.

You may also use these kinds of messages for a quick response. Imagine you're in the supermarket and you want to ask your friend if they need something. You can send them a message there and then and depending on if they're online or near their phone, they can respond. In this way, instant messaging can be used like text messages.

It's also used to organise things as a group. For example, you might have a group chat with your family, and you might use it to share news and to organise the next family get together.

Instant messaging often happens through social media sites and apps. Some are built for messaging; others just have it as part of their features. Either way, to be able to message, you'll have to choose which social media platform suits you best first. You can then sign up and start searching for your friends and family using their email address, phone number or name. How you search for them will depend on which platform you choose, so we'll cover this in more detail later.

Things to consider:

  • It's quick - You don't need to write formally. You just send the words you want to covey as if you were having a conversation on the phone or in a room. This means it's good for short messages, questions or notifications
  • You can see when your contacts are online - When your contacts are using or have recently used their social media account, most platforms will tell you they are 'active' or 'online'. This helps you to know if you're likely to get a response from them straight away or if it could be a while before you hear back
  • You can carry on with other things on your device - There's no need to stay in the chat. Any new messages will pop-up when they arrive, and you can answer them whenever you feel you have time
  • You can carry on multiple chats at the same time - Because messages don't need to be back and forth, you can have ongoing chats with multiple people and groups at the same time
  • You don't know how long it will be until someone responds - If they're online, it might give you more of a chance, but it's not a guarantee someone will respond straight away. This would be the same with other communications too though. If someone is busy, they're busy. Instant messages make it quicker and easier to respond to when they become free
  • It can be distracting or interrupt what you are doing - Because it's so quick, easy and convenient, it can be easy to write 'just one more' message. It's a good idea to give yourself set times to look at all your messages at once. In between you can mute your device's notifications, so they don't attract your attention. You can also usually 'mute' just one chat, so no notifications come from it. So, if lots of people are talking in a group chat while you're trying to focus, but you still want to be able to get messages from some people, you might choose this option

Chapter 2


Read time

4 mins

In no particular order, some commonly used examples of instant messaging apps include:

  • WhatsApp - You sign up for WhatsApp using your phone number. It will automatically connect you with people in your phone contacts who have WhatsApp. You can use for both one to one and group chats. It can be used on touchscreen devices as well as laptop and desktop
  • Facebook Messenger - This works through your Facebook account and allows you to message with the people you are connected to. You can message people who are not yet your 'Facebook friend' but they will need to accept your invitation to chat first. It can also be used on all devices and for one to one and group chats. The Facebook Messenger app is different to the Facebook app. On all devices, it's usual for people to use both the Facebook and the Facebook Messenger apps. On desktop, you can message in the Facebook app or you can use the separate Facebook Messenger app
  • WeChat - This app allows you to sign up using either your mobile or Facebook account. It has similar features to WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, allowing you one on one and group chats on all devices
  • Telegram - Has become more popular because it can give you more privacy and encryption options. It has all the usual messaging functionality. It is available for all devices for one to one and group chats. It has free and paid for premium options
  • Snapchat - Snapchat is not exclusively an instant messaging service. To 'send someone a snap' generally means to send them an image or video message. Snapchat does offer a chat function though where you can speak to other Snapchat users. Snapchat is for use on mobile devices. You can group chat or chat one to one
  • Instagram - Instagram has more functions than just messages. It's a social media app focused on sharing images and video/image based 'stories'. It has a chat function as part of its app, and you can use this to one-to-one chat or group chat. It mainly works on mobile through the app, but you can go on Instagram on a laptop or desktop too
  • Viber - Viber is specifically for chat and describes itself as 'safe chats and calls'. Viber is free like most of these instant messaging apps and allows you to chat and group chat on most devices
  • Microsoft Teams - This is quite often used for work purposes, but it can be used for social too. It comes as a standalone product or as part of Microsoft's
  • M365 - suite of office tools. You can use teams chat function to talk with just one person or a group. It's available on most devices and through the web

Things to consider about these services:

  • They're usually free - Most of these websites and apps are free, though some may have premium features you can upgrade to for a fee. If you're not looking to pay, then you should read about what you can get for free vs on premium before you register for any services
  • You're signing up to a social platform - This means you will need to share some of your details. It means you need to think about how you'll stay safe and manage who can find your account. If you want more help with this, you can take a look at our module 'Social media safety' later
  • Who's using the apps - A big part of deciding which service or services to choose is knowing which apps your friends and family are using or are willing to use. If your friends and family aren't on the service you want to use and they don't want to, then it might not be worth signing up
  • Read the small print - We can give you some brief information on some commonly used services, but you need to do your own research. Speak to friends and family, look on the internet and on your device's app store. One of the main things you should do is check you are happy with the safety and privacy settings the services offer. Above good features and being easy to use, you need to make sure you and your personal details are safe


How to choose

No matter which option looks best to you now, you should take time to find what suits you. Ask people you trust and read the details of what each service can give you. With instant messaging, the top things to consider are security and privacy. You should prioritise the services your friends and family are using or are willing to use.

Chapter 3


Read time

5 mins

How to get started

There is no one instruction fits all to setting up instant messaging. It depends on your provider, the type of device you will be using and what you want to do. You should already have a good idea about what provider or providers you want to use from chapter 2. So, let's take a look at how set up will differ depending on the type of device you might be using.


Laptop and desktop - web access

If you're using a laptop or desktop, one of the ways you might be able to access instant messaging services is through a web browser. Some, but not all services will have a website version. For example, you can access your Instagram account from a browser. This means you can chat using a browser too.

To check if the services you want to use are available through a browser, the best thing you can do is search for them on a web browser. Most services will have a website even if you can't use their service through it. It will either allow you to register/log-in and use the service in the browser or it will prompt you to download an app.


Laptop and desktop - applications (apps)

Most instant messaging services operate app first. This means that most, if not all services will be available through your device's app store. To access them, open your device's app store and use the search bar to look for the service. From there you can find it in the list, open it and click download. Once you've downloaded the app to your device, you can find it and open it using your device's search bar or main menu.

A nice feature of most app stores is that they frequently offer a list of the most popular apps in each category. So, you may be able to look on your app store for their list of their top free communication apps. So for example, the Google Play app store lists their top free communication apps as WhatsApp, Snapchat, Telegram & Facebook Messenger. Searching this on your app store might help towards your decision.


Mobile and tablet apps

It's uncommon for people to use a web browser to access services on their mobile. The easier way to do it is to download the apps you need. To do this, you should open your device's app store and use the search bar to look for the service you want to use. From there you can find the app in the list, open it and click download. Once downloaded, you can find and open the app using your device's search bar or main menu.


Opening the app or website is just the beginning. Your next step in your set up is creating or registering for an account. Whether you've chosen to use web browser or app, the next stage is quite often similar on all services. The service will ask you to create or register for an account. These mean the same thing, which is that they will create an online identity for you to use on their services. This is what you will use to log in, use your account and it's how you will appear to your friends.

You will often be asked to fill out a few 'fields' or boxes with your personal details. The kinds of things they might ask for are your name or nickname, email address, birthday, and a photo of you. Some will ask for more, some will ask for less. It's your choice whether you're happy to give away the information or not.

With name, for example, some people will use something called a 'username' which usually works more like a nickname. It doesn't have to be your real name, it us just how you want to appear or be found on the app. For example, if your name is John Smith, you might use the username JohnS or Smithy or some kind of version of your name. Some people will add numbers if their username has already been used by a different user. For example, JohnSmith3.

One final thing you will be asked to do is create a password. This is what locks your account and makes sure only you can use it. Once your account is set up, you will use this and either your email, username or phone number to log-in and use your account. Creating a strong password is very important. If you want to know more about how to keep your passwords and secure, you can look at our lesson 'Ten tips for staying safe online'.


Setting up safely

Once final part of setting up is making sure your set up safely. Some services will ask you to set up your privacy and safety settings as you set up your account. Others will set you up with default settings. If this is the case, it's a good idea for you to go and check your privacy and security settings once you're logged in.

Check who can see your account, who can contact you, what they can see and do. By editing these settings you can protect yourself from unwanted messages and you can better keep your personal details safe. There's more help in our lesson on 'Using social media safely'.

Chapter 4


Read time

3 mins

Getting started

So, you're all set up - you're logged in and ready to start chatting. What comes next? How you message and interact on Instant messaging services will depend on which one you chose, but there are a few general things you should note to get started.


These are:

  • Your conversations - The chats you are having with other people will usually appear in a list. They will appear in order of who you've messaged most recently. People will appear in this list as their name, username or on some applications - whatever you saved them as in your contacts
  • Getting to your conversations list - This depends on what service you're using. If messaging is just one part of the service then you'll usually have to click on an icon button to get to the chat menu. This can look like a speech bubble or a paper plane - to name a few. You should look at your service's help and support pages if you're unsure. If your service is designed just for messages - like Facebook Messenger - the first thing you see when you open the page or app will be your conversation list
  • Starting a new conversation - If you haven't yet messaged the person or group you want to reach out to, you will need to search for and add them. It is dependent on the service as to how this works, but most services will have some kind of search bar, some way to add new contacts and a way to start a new conversation. These are often found at the top of your conversation list/chat home page
  • Creating a group chat - This works much in the same way. Once you've added people to your contacts or friends list they become available for you to add them to a group chat. You usually begin a group chat in the same way as a normal chat. The difference is you will search for and/or select more names when the service asks you to select someone to send the message to
  • Writing your message - Once you've started your conversation you can start sending messages. At the bottom of the page there is generally a box ready for you to click into it and begin typing. Once you are ready you can send
  • Sending images, emojis and gifs - Most services will now allow you to send a mixture of non-text items. Adding these can help to personalise your messages and make them more engaging. You can upload pictures from your device or take new pictures while you're using the app if they have a camera button in the message writing box. Emojis are small cartoon icons you can send to convey meaning, for example you can send a smiley face to show how you are feeling. Gifs are small video clips which repeat and are used as reactions to things being written in the conversation. All of these options, if available in your chosen service, will appear in or around the box where you write your messages. It's okay not to get this straight away, just try and see what works for you and learn from how others use them
  • Sent, delivered and read icons - Most services will allow you to see the status of the messages you have sent. This means you will be able to see some kind of icon which tells you whether your message has sent, whether it has been delivered and then, if your recipient has seen them. You should read your services help pages for more information on what this will look like for you

Module complete!

Well done on completing this lesson! You should now have a good grasp of using Instant Messaging, choosing a provider and getting started. We suggest you keep our next lesson on 'Using social media'. It will help you with the basics of social media. So you feel more confident choosing what's right for you and know how to begin your first steps.


Up next for you:

Next module: Using social media

Back to: Socialising online

Scottish Widows Be Money Well is committed to providing information in a way that is accessible and useful for our users. This information, however, is not in any way intended to amount to authority or advice on which reliance should be placed. You should seek professional advice as appropriate and required. Any sites, products or services named in this module are just examples of what's available. Scottish Widows does not endorse the services they provide. The information in this module was last updated on 31st Oct 2022.