One day, while browsing the Internet, I heard myself asking in querulous tones, “What is the Discord app? And why do I keep hearing about it?” And that was when I realized that I was perilously close to my greatest fear: turning into an out-of-touch crank, borderline terrified of new technologies. So I went down a spiral of Discord research, which proved fascinating and useful — especially as a parent.
My local moms’ groups were talking about how their teens were spending hours on end — often well into the night — on Discord, especially during the summer without typical school schedules. It’s one of the fastest growing social platforms out there, with over 300M users in 2020 and growing, so chances are, you know a young adult who is using Discord. The moms in my groups were understandably concerned about some of the dangers they’d heard about the chat platform, such as predatory “catfishing” (those who steal another person’s identity to pretend to be someone else), stolen information, and the alt-right proliferation on the platform. To learn more, I dove deep into articles with doomsday headlines like “The Dark Side of Discord” and “Why You Shouldn’t Use Discord.” Not exactly an enthused recommendation for the platform. But, it turns out, no new technology is absolutely negative or positive. The trick is staying educated in order to empower yourself and your teens.
I learned that I’ve been out of the loop since 2015, when the service was first founded. It’s a free chat platform that connects individuals based on interests as wide-ranging as you can imagine, allowing them to communicate via chat, video, and even streaming. While most servers — Discord’s terminology for community spaces — are invite-only, there are some larger ones that are open for discussions around games like Fortnite. The platform adamantly insists they are not a social media platform, since there are no news feeds, likes, or ads. The pressure is not on individuals to go viral via a profound or funny post; rather, it’s a place to just be, without impressing others
What are Discord servers used for?
Discord servers can be as macro or micro as you wish. They can be focused around fandoms (sports, gaming, movies) or they can be hyperlocal, organized among friends in a neighborhood, for example. Jeff Haynes, Senior Editor of Video Games at Common Sense Media, explains what attracts kids: “Perhaps the largest benefit of Discord for teens is the option to find communities of people around the country and the world that share similar interests in things that they love. If you want to talk about an anime episode, debate the stats of your favorite basketball or soccer player, or chat about your favorite video game, you can do it there.” You can also choose your level of involvement. Users can also branch off from the bigger servers and create their own, customizing it to niche interests, people they’ve connected with, or even just a different tone of discussion.
How does Discord actually work?
To use Discord, you download an application on your computer or smartphone, which then allows you access to the different servers. (If you’ve used Slack, the interface is very similar.) You choose your servers, channels (conversation topics), and the people you want to interact with. From there, you can engage in all kinds of multimedia methods of sharing: streaming, chatting, linking, sharing photos and videos. There’s great freedom in all this capability — and of course, there’s the flip side, which is the risk that some users may not be mature enough to handle.
In terms of roles, administrators are in charge of the creation of the servers and can then establish rules, invite people, and ban members. They will often assign moderators to help monitor the server for abuse and other infractions that require action. Some servers are verified and have greater levels of moderation and regulation.
Discord is different from a group chat, because participants choose when and how they engage. Rather than individual messages popping up on your phone, Discord exists separate from those spaces. It also allows a greater range of interaction, seamlessly incorporating video chats and streaming that appeals particularly to gamers.
What should parents know about Discord?
If you don’t know what Discord is, you’re not alone. When I asked friends if they understood the platform, they usually shrugged, admitting that they haven’t really felt compelled to learn, because it seems too complex. Given that the platform was first popularized for gamers, with a 13+ (largely unenforced) age limit, it makes sense that many parents are unfamiliar.
During the pandemic, Discord took on a new sense of importance, connecting people to mimic in-person gatherings that were no longer as possible. It provided great comfort to many teens struggling with a lack of social outlet, and created new friendships for people around the world. In theory, this promotes a great sense of diversity, allowing access to varied perspectives in an egalitarian setting defined by authenticity and open discussion. But because humans are humans, there are some important caveats to consider around safety and appropriate behavior.
What are the dangers of Discord?
I began to sense a new urgency around the Discord-related conversations when I started seeing cautionary tales about how parents’ lack of knowledge led to kids being exposed to strangers who asked probing questions about their addresses and families. They were increasingly worried about safety, especially around predators posing as peers, and around issues of bullying, exploitation, and mental health. There were reports of groups of users “invading” a Discord server and infusing the tone with hostility and abuse. In the past, alt-right groups have also flocked to Discord as a way of organizing rallies, due to its anonymity and proficiency in disseminating information to large groups. And of course, there’s the usual security concern of having an account hacked or stolen.
While it may be easy enough to restrict kids entirely, or even leave them to their own devices, parents will feel more empowered if they try to understand the benefits as well as the pitfalls of Discord. By taking an active involvement in their kids’ online behavior, parents can not only engage more fully in their interests, but continue to find better ways to support them. After all, better to have an informed teen making decisions in the world, than one who feels as if they are left without a guide, or cut-off from their peers.
Is it safe to be on Discord?
There are some, but not many, built-in safety features with Discord. You can change your settings to scan messages before you receive them, and block messages from anyone you don’t know. You can also decline to see any age-restricted content. So the tools are there — the problem is that their usage depends on the individual. If you’re a parent, it helps to know something about Discord and understand how to talk to kids about adapting their settings.
Also note that there are no parental settings, so whatever your family decides, you’ll have to determine the level of freedom you are willing to give your teen and who has access to the account.
Here are a few key steps to safeguarding kids who use Discord:
- Talk frankly with your kids about the benefits and dangers. Discuss the usual precautions: anonymity, responsible sharing, restricting messages from strangers. Some parents find it useful to draw up some sort of household media contract to clearly outline the boundaries around social app usage. Lastly, take the age restriction seriously. It really is not suitable for young kids. (Apple Play Store lists the age recommendation as 17+.)
- Read the terms of service closely. The language may be too dense for some kids to review, so before your child sets up an account on Discord, review them yourself and go over the important points with them. Make sure they know to come to you when something makes them uncomfortable. Together, you can make decisions on how best to proceed.
- Set up a secure account with multi-factor authentication, secure passwords, and whatever parental monitoring you and your kids agree to. Scrub your settings to the safest options and make sure your kids know to keep those settings intact.
- Stick to verified servers. Help your teen research the servers that are verified by checking sites’ pages for official Discord servers or filtering in the Explore page. Review the servers’ rules and check the level of moderation.
- Monitor mindfully. While there are varying expectations for privacy for teens depending on the household, it’s still crucial that parents have some knowledge of where their kids are spending their time. Haynes advises, “[Parents] should always strive for a degree of moderation online, especially so the use of Discord doesn't affect their teen's schoolwork, family relationships, or personal friendships with people they've known for years.” Be transparent and respectful when you discuss these boundaries.
- Join Discord yourself. The best way to understand a new platform or software is by engaging with it yourself. Create a Discord account and look around, especially in the servers where your kids are spending their time. Know how to block users and report them, if needed, so you are not caught flailing in a situation that arises suddenly. And remember that Discord is not just for teens — some parents will create family servers to connect with their kids, especially those who don’t live in the house anymore. Don’t be afraid to reap the benefits, too — there are many!
- Encourage kids to interact with peers outside of Discord. While there’s nothing inherently bad about internet communities, they do not replace ones in real life. Set reasonable limits and stick to them.
It’s unlikely that Discord will be a full-on replacement of real-life friendships. Haynes says, “As teens look to reclaim their independence, and as places open back up (around waves of COVID-19), they'll probably look at Discord's messaging functions as a way to further their options for meeting and being with friends.” So Discord will likely be around for the near future, at least, but it may shift in importance and function.
The lesson here is that no social tool is inherently negative or positive, since those platforms can’t exist without humans driving the content and tone. And humans, as we all know, contain multitudes. The best thing we can do as parents, with Discord and all new technologies, is to remain educated and empowered.
Thao Thai is a writer and editor based out of Ohio, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her work has been published in Kitchn, Eater, Cubby, The Everymom, cupcakes and cashmere, and other publications. Her debut novel, Banyan Moon, comes out in 2023 from HarperCollins.