Is Discord Safe for Children?
Like most Discord users who use the service for non-gaming activities, a 16-year-old Washington teenager was on the app with her marching band friends. What started out as a seemingly harmless direct message (DM) to the girl gnarled into harassment and grooming.
Her mother discovered that an older man had been manipulating and tracking the girl over a private thread on Discord.[*] The stranger had somehow weaseled his way into the teenager’s marching band Discord server before befriending her.
By the time the mother shut down her daughter’s Discord account, the girl had obliged to share compromising pictures of herself and even disclosed where she lived.
Stories like this one are devastating reminders of the damaging potency of social networks for children. In fact, Discord warned nearly 600,000 members for posting exploitative and unsolicited content as of June 2022.[*]
Although Discord continues to remove accounts that endanger children, there are additional steps parents can take to make the app safer.
What Is Discord? How Does It Work?
Discord began as a video game chat app rivaling Facebook, Reddit,and Skype in 2015. The gaming community had outgrown existing Voice over IP (VoIP) services that didn’t have high-quality, lag-free voice chat.
Discord’s real-time communication platform and semi-public, forum-style community became saving graces for these gamers. Today, Discord has 150 million active users, most of whom use the service for casual non-gaming activities.[*]
Unlike other social media platforms, Discord lets you share your screen, voice chat, watch others stream games, and start video calls.
Related: YouTube Parental Controls: 4 Ways To (Easily) Get Started →
Here’s how Discord works
Basic Discord is free, and users can run the app on their smartphones or computers. Discord also has a paid subscription plan called Nitro. Nitro allows users to upgrade their emojis, personalize their profiles, and share bigger files with other users.
Discord has both iOS and Android apps available for download in Apple’s App Store and Google Play. The desktop app (and web version) offers more advanced features than the Discord mobile app — such as integrations with popular gaming consoles, game overlays, screen sharing, and push-to-talk.
To create a Discord account, users must:
- Enter their phone number or email address
- Create a username (referred to as a Discord “tag”) and password
- Enter their date of birth
- Confirm their date of birth and email address or phone number
Recently, Discord updated its iOS age rating to 17+ from 12+ and rolled out age-restricted servers. Users between 13 and 17 cannot join or view content in age-restricted servers. And those users over the age of 18 can only join such gated servers on iPhones after they opt in on the desktop app.
If users are locked out of an age-restricted server, they must provide a photo depicting their face, a photo ID, and a piece of paper with their username written on it.
In theory, these verification steps fortify Discord’s security and help restrict mature content. However, the age verification process is likely to be porous if minors enter a false age upon sign-up.
Discord Terms To Know
To an uninitiated parent, Discord parlance can seem daunting. But knowing Discord-speak can help parents understand how their kids use the platform and, therefore, help maintain their kids’ safety. A few of the most common Discord terms include:
Servers are the main group forums on Discord. They have their own community guidelines and focus on specific topics. Once a user is signed in, they can tap the “Servers'' tab for a list of Discord servers.
There are public servers dedicated to politics, music, games — you name it. Users can search for specific servers and request to join ones that aren’t public.
Some servers have age-restricted labels to prevent minors from entering them. Within servers, users can communicate with other people via screen share (Go Live), video chat, or text chat.
Channels function as chat rooms and can be voice or text-based. They can be dedicated to something specific or be used for universal chats across the server. Administrators (admins) can adjust each channel's permissions if conversations need to be kept private.
Categories streamline a user’s view by organizing channels into expandable sections. Often, channels grouped into a certain category all have the same permissions — which the server's creator or administrator controls.
Direct Messages (DMs) and group DMs (GDMs)
Direct messages, or DMs, are private messages sent directly to other users. For instance, you might send a DM to someone you know to initiate a conversation. Group DMs are similar, but they house a conversation between several people.
Custom emojis, stickers, and bots
On Discord, users with the “Manage Emoji” permission can customize emojis by uploading a picture file. Once a new emoji is created, anyone in the server can use it by clicking on the emoji icon in the message box.
Stickers are larger versions of emojis that can’t be used alongside text or in Discord statuses. Users can also send memes inside chats.
Amiable AI bots are another unique aspect of Discord. They automate tasks on a Discord server and are mostly used by admins. Bots can welcome new server members or warn users who violate a server’s rules.
Server boosts are essentially paid server upgrades. Boosts can improve a server’s audio and streaming quality, increase the number of supported emojis, add a server banner, and more. Some of these features are available in the Nitro plan, but not all.
Student hubs are dedicated servers for students to meet classmates. Student hubs can only be accessed by users whose email addresses are associated with the school. Students can find Student Hubs by exploring public servers in their mobile or desktop apps.
Whenever users create a Discord account, they are assigned a token. Discord tokens are a security measure to prevent identity theft and ensure online safety on the Discord platform. Protecting your token is essential — whoever has your token can log in to your Discord account.
Some users have multiple Discord accounts. Switching between those accounts is straightforward. Users just click on their avatar, then click “Switch Accounts.”
💡 Related: What Are the Risks of Online Gaming? (2023 Guide For Parents) →
Connecting Discord to Other Accounts
Discord lets users connect other gaming and social media accounts to their profiles. However, Discord has no parental controls. If you’ve turned on parental controls in one platform, they won’t carry over into Discord.
PlayStation Network (PSN)
- Many Discord users connect their PSN account to their Discord account to display their username and gaming activity in their profiles.
- Users can also enable in-game overlay, which lets them see how many people are watching them play live, read Discord chats, and voice chat via Discord.
- Parents should keep an eye on this integration. Users often set their PSN Online Status and Now Playing privacy settings on PSN to “Anyone” so that they can share their PSN status on Discord.
- Once the Xbox integration is set up, users can see what other gamers are playing and start Discord voice channels to communicate in-game.
- But beware that any Xbox Family Settings you may have configured — like screen time, smart limits, or content filters — will not apply to Discord.
- Users can just as easily set up an integration with Roblox, another popular gaming platform among kids. Whenever a user plays or creates games on Roblox, their activity will appear in their Discord status.
- And although Roblox has parental controls that oversee content and spending limits, those won’t be enforced within Discord.
- If a streamer has connected their Twitch and Discord accounts, Discord users will be able to see when users are streaming on Twitch — it shows up in their status.
- When users integrate with Steam, their Discord profiles will show other users what game they’re playing. This way, friends can join in or watch them play.
💡 Related: Online Gaming Safety For Kids: What Parents Need To Know →
Is There Adult Content on Discord?
In short, yes — there are opt-in not safe for work (NSFW) servers on Discord that contain inappropriate content for a young audience.
Apps with user-generated content (UGC), like Discord, Meta, and Reddit, are prone to hosting and promoting mature material. Most of Discord’s users are adults between the ages of 25 and 34, and server admins have permission to publish explicit content.
That said, Discord explicitly prohibits certain categories of content — namely, harassment, hate speech, threats of violence, misinformation, or sexual abuse material and grooming.
But server moderation is mostly left up to Discord users, and Discord confirms that its team does not proactively seek out and mark explicit material. With over 30,000 servers offering NSFW content, violations do happen.[*]
In fact, Discord made international news in 2020 when one server with over 140,000 images of women and minors was leaked.[*]
In recent years, Discord has made attempts to gatekeep adult content. Currently, 15% of Discord employees are dedicated to upholding safety on the platform.[*] They maintain quarterly Transparency Reports, a Moderator Academy, and age-restricted channel labels.
Does Discord Have Parental Controls?
There aren’t any formal parental controls baked into Discord. Without close adult supervision, Discord can become a dangerous place. Here are a few reasons why:
- Most Discord servers are private, invite-only spaces with fewer than 10 people.[*] However, child users can receive friend requests from anyone on a shared server and unknowingly accept a request from a bad actor. Strangers may start sending DMs to children and engage in scams, exploitation, or cyberbullying.
- Minors have a high chance of encountering strangers if invitations to private servers are somehow made available on public servers. At that point, anyone can request to join the private server.
- Most schools block apps like Snapchat and Instagram, but Discord flies under the radar. Although there are student hubs, most kids use Discord with their friends outside of the hub, making them privy to the dangers mentioned above.
- Parents are largely unfamiliar with Discord and how it works, so they may not pay close attention to their child’s activity on the platform.
- Content moderation is server-specific, and moderation isn’t always consistent. That means some servers may not be marked appropriately, and children can stumble upon adult material.
- Discord doesn’t have a meaningful age verification process. While you are asked to provide your birthdate upon sign-up, it can be easily spoofed with arbitrary usernames and profile pictures.
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How To Help Children Stay Safe on Discord
1. Filter explicit content
Parents can restrict explicit content by clicking on the “Privacy & Safety” tab in their child’s Discord profile. The “Keep me safe” tab is the most conservative option, screening all direct messages for explicit content.
The “My friends are nice” option scans all direct messages except those sent from friends. The “Do not scan” option doesn’t scan any messages for explicit content.
2. Toggle off Direct Message (DM) settings
In Discord settings, parents can enable safe direct messaging or block direct messages altogether. When the child is logged in to Discord, navigate to the settings gear icon, click Privacy & Safety, and scroll to “Server Privacy Defaults.”
Next, toggle off “Allow direct messages from server members.” A message will then appear asking if you’d like to apply the change to all existing servers.
3. Enable friend request settings
Friend request settings determine who is allowed to send users friend requests. Within Discord’s privacy and safety settings, parents can adjust who can add their child as a friend using “Everyone,” “Friends of Friends,” or “Server Members” options.
4. Practice other account safety tips
Parents should teach kids how to recognize and avoid phishing links or malware-laden downloads. Parents should also encourage their children to speak up if they receive DMs from strangers.
Bad actors that befriend your child could be impersonating Discord staff, attempting to take over the child’s account, or soliciting sensitive information.
5. Block unknown users
Instruct your children not to talk to strangers online, and show them how to block accounts that they don’t recognize. In a DM chat, kids can click on a person’s username to get to their profile. From there, the child can click on three dots in the top right corner, and choose “Block.”
6. Report content or users on Discord
If a child tells you about suspicious activity on their account, work with them to report content or users to Discord. In the report, be sure to provide as much information as possible, including usernames and screenshots.
7. Set up a strong password and two-factor authentication (2FA)
Make sure your child’s password is strong (i.e., unique, long, and complex) and is tied to a two-factor authentication (2FA) code method, such as SMS or an authenticator app.
Aura’s password manager comes with browser extensions and cross-device sync. Automatically add and sync account and password information across all supported devices to avoid memorizing (and potentially forgetting) usernames and passwords.
8. Only join verified, age-appropriate servers
Urge kids to only join verified public servers. Verification badges appear on the top left corner of a server and look like a checkmark.
These badges indicate that a server is affiliated with a business, brand, or figure of public interest. Also, confirm that an active moderation team is patrolling any servers that your child has joined. Click on “Server Settings,” then “Members,” and try to find at least one member with a crown next to their name.
9. Turn off access to NSFW servers on iOS
Children shouldn’t be able to access NSFW servers, but you should ensure that’s the case if they are iOS users. Sign in to Discord on your iPhone and navigate to User Settings. Click on Privacy & Safety, find “Allow access to age-restricted content on iOS,” and verify that the toggle is off.
10. Know how to respond in the event of an incident
Report any event of harassment, spam, or abuse to Discord. It’s critical to provide as much information as possible so that Discord can block a user or users violating their guidelines.
Collect and submit screenshots of the chat, pictures, videos, user IDs, and other IDs for specific messages and channels. If you’d like to report a specific message on your iOS device, you can hold down a message and click “Report.”
Discord Can Be Safe With Oversight
Striking the balance between protecting your children and policing them is a challenge. The key is establishing good habits that safeguard your child’s online activity.
- Have open and honest conversations: Talk about recognizing and avoiding predatory behavior. Install Aura’s parental controls to restrict behavior and screen time on iPhones, iPads, and Android mobile devices.
- Discover Discord together: Explain why Discord's safety and privacy settings are important. Help your child set up Aura’s virtual private network (VPN) to prohibit access to phishing sites.
- Help children identify age-appropriate servers: Teach them about age-restricted and verified servers. Confirm that they aren’t able to join NSFW servers.
- Understand how your children are using Discord: Ask them to walk you through the platform, their settings, and any connected apps.
- Store your child’s Discord account credentials in a password manager: Aura lets you add and sync your family’s account and password information across devices and browser extensions.
- Learn more about paid services on Discord: Read up on Nitro and server boosts, and set rules for when or if your child can make those upgrades.