In the past year and a half since the pandemic hit, I have become a far more online person. I’ve joined more online groups. I’ve also started being a regular on Twitter, Twitch, and Discord, and I’ve seen some of the best and some of the worst that these online spaces have to offer. I’ve made many lifelong friends whom I love dearly. But I’ve also been sent death threats from a rando demanding pictures of my feet, and I’ve met young teens who are proud to send selfies of their new outfits to a public forum full of strangers they met that day.
I am a huge proponent of these online spaces. I believe they can do so much good for people like me, people who have trouble making friends in real life, people who are confined to their houses. I’ve met people from all over the world, from Canada and England to Vietnam, Korea, and the Philippines. I’ve become friends with so many fun, interesting, talented people. And heck, I’ve seen the kind of help and solace these spaces have provided to so many kids who aren’t finding the support they need at home. And I would never for a moment want to downplay or erase the good that these spaces can be.
But let’s face it. I’m a 26-year-old woman. I take safety very seriously. I don’t go by my real name, I don’t tell people where I live. I don’t put pictures of my face in public spaces. And I am not so easily rattled by the horrible people online: the trolls, the harassers, the bullies. I have the good sense to block the people that make me uncomfortable, or angry. And sometimes, when I’m in these online spaces, I can’t help but wonder: would I have been okay if I entered this space when I was 13?
And I think the answer is unequivocally “no.”
What Is Twitch?
Real quick, I want to go over a few of these online spaces I frequent. I think everyone is at least partially familiar with Twitter, but Discord and Twitch? What are those?
Twitch is easiest to describe. It’s a streaming app. I like to think of it as YouTube, but live. Usually it’s for people playing video games for a crowd, like if your kid was playing a video game while some friends watch and chat. And I’ve talked before about these online personalities, and how toxic some can be, but I don’t think parents are really aware of the “chat” part of online streaming. The chat audience that personality plays to, the people commenting on the game in a live chatroom at the side of every video. That’s the social aspect of being on Twitch.
I think when people think of Twitch as a ‘social media’ platform, that chat is what they mean. It’s a huge array of people gathered together, and it can be fun and horrible all at once. There are people making jokes and having fun with the stream. There’s also plenty of harassment, sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia. Some Twitch communities are better at moderating those than others. Others are more than happy to encourage a toxic community if it gets them more views. Some are even the victims of those harassment campaigns themselves. (Note: You can watch the videos after they were streamed live, which gets rid of that chat feature. You can also just not go in the chat at all and watch without it. But does your child know to stay away?)
What Is Discord?
Then we get to Discord. Is it an online chat forum? Is it a video chat? Group text? Are kids using it to talk to strangers? Are they using it for homework?
Um. I feel like it’s All Of The Above.
I used Discord for a long time as a sort of group chat/group video caller. It was really just a replacement for Skype when Skype was not cutting it back in the day. I only spoke to a handful of friends, and we used it to play games together. Then, later, it was how I joined a friend’s online D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) game. He’d built out an entire server, with different channels for different topics. A group chat with our friends, but organized. We’d voice call once a week, and he installed bots to roll our dice for us. It was a convenient way to run a game with friends in Seattle and Chicago.
A private Discord like that is one thing. And then, I discovered public Discords.
Usually it’s for fans of stuff. I’m in one that’s just “fans of X video game.” There’re also Discord servers for fans of specific Twitch personalities or shows. Or ones for specific projects that are open to the public. Or ones for people who want to learn how to modify (mod) video games. There are ones for writers, and there are large online book clubs.
They come in various sizes and various levels of safety. Some are invite only, and some are not. There are some that are small and close knit, where there are mods who are paying attention to safety and care about people’s wellbeing. There are also massive servers where no one is paying that much attention. You don’t usually use video or voice chat without a reason, but all Discord servers have the ability to do so. Some servers will have large voice calls for watching movies or playing games together.
You can also Direct Message anyone you’ve met in one of these public servers, depending on your user settings. Or be messaged by them. Again, it depends on your settings–or, more relevant here, your child’s settings.
Staying Safe Online
Now, for all of the above apps, I don’t think they’re a problem in and of themselves. There are plenty of people in these spaces who do want to keep these kids safe. There are older teens and adults who would be happy to mentor and encourage kids in these spaces. I’ve seen that in some of these public projects. And I’ve seen people, including kids, make wonderful lifelong friends in these spaces. But a lot of these kids don’t take the safety aspects of these public platforms seriously.
Kids can and do make friends on these platforms. But sometimes kids don’t realize that they need to set boundaries or that not everyone in a public space has their best interests at heart. I had a friend in her late twenties who had to ask a teenager not to private message them as if they were close friends. I’ve seen kids enter a new server for the first time and immediately start sharing how much they were struggling with their mental health to people they didn’t know. In both cases, they lucked out, and there were adults who could set those boundaries in place and try to keep them safe. But that’s not always going to be the case. There are bad people out there; I’ve seen them before!
It’s been hammered into my head since I first went online to be aware of these dangers. Never share my name with a stranger. Never share my location with a stranger. I’ve made friends in these online spaces, friends that I trust, but that trust was built over a year of knowing them. I know my boundaries. I don’t feel pressured to share any of that information. And kids aren’t always taking those warnings seriously, and it’s up to parents to make sure they do.