What teens see in closed online spaces like the Discord app

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(THE CONVERSATION) Since the early days of the Internet in the 1980s, going online has meant engaging with a community. Initially, there were dial-up chat servers, mailing lists, and text-based discussion groups focused on specific interests.

Since the early 2000s, mass-oriented social media platforms have brought these small spaces together into larger ones, allowing people to find their own little nooks on the internet, but only with interconnections to others. This allows social media sites to suggest new spaces for users to join, whether it’s a local neighborhood chat or a group with the same hobby, and to sell specifically targeted ads. . But the niche small group community is making a comeback with adults, kids, and teens.

When Discord originally released in 2015, many video games either didn’t allow players to talk to each other using live voice chat while playing the game – or required them to pay higher prices to do so. Discord was an app that enabled real-time voice and text chat, so friends could team up to overcome an obstacle, or just chat while exploring a game world. People still use Discord for that, but nowadays , most of the activity on the service is part of a larger community than a few friends who get together to play.

Examining Discord is part of my research on how academics, developers, and policy makers might design and sustain healthy online spaces.

A bit oldschool


Discord first appeared on my radar in 2017 when an acquaintance asked me to join a writer’s support group. Discord users can create their own communities, called servers, with shareable links to join and choices about whether the server is public or private.

The writer’s group server looked like an old-fashioned chat room, but with multiple channels segmenting the different conversations people were having. It reminded me of descriptions of early online chats and forum-based communities that hosted long conversations between people from all over the world.

The people on the writers server quickly realized that a few of our community members were teenagers under the age of 18. Although the server owner reserved the space by invitation only, he avoided saying “no” to anyone requesting access. It was meant to be a supportive community for people working on writing projects, after all. Why would he want to exclude anyone?

He didn’t want to kick the teens out, but was able to make some adjustments using Discord’s server moderation system. Members of the community were required to disclose their age, and anyone under 18 was given a special “role” that labeled them a minor. This role prevented them from accessing channels that we marked as “not safe for work” or “NSFW”. Some of the writers were working on explicit romance novels and did not want to solicit comments from teenagers. And sometimes adults just wanted to have their own space.

Although we’ve taken care to build a safe online space for teens, there are always dangers with an app like Discord. The platform is criticized for its lack of parental controls. The terms of service state that no one under the age of 13 should sign up for Discord, but many young people use the platform regardless.

Additionally, some people have used Discord to organize and encourage hateful rhetoric, including neo-Nazi ideologies. Others have used the platform to traffic in child pornography.

However, Discord maintains that these types of activities are illegal and unwelcome on its platform, and the company routinely bans servers and users that it believes perpetuate harm.

Security Options

Every Discord server I’ve joined since then has had some protection against youngsters and inappropriate content. Whether it’s age-restricted channels or simply not allowing minors to join certain servers, the Discord communities I’m in share an increased concern for the safety of young people on the internet.

This does not mean, however, that every Discord server will be safe at all times for its members. Parents should still take the time to talk with their children about what they are doing in their online spaces. Even something as innocuous as the popular Roblox kids’ gaming environment can go wrong in the right setting.

And while the servers I’ve participated in have been carefully managed, not all Discord servers are regulated in this way. In addition to servers lacking uniform regulation, account owners can lie about their age and identity when creating an account. And there are new ways for users to misbehave or annoy others on Discord, like spamming loud and inappropriate audio.

But, as with other modern social media platforms, there are safeguards to help administrators keep online communities safe for young people if they so choose. Server members can label an entire server “NSFW”, going beyond single channel labels and locking underage accounts out of entire communities. But if they don’t, company officials can do it themselves. When accessing Discord on an iOS device, the NSFW servers are not visible to anyone, even accounts belonging to adults. Additionally, Discord runs a Moderator Academy to support the training of volunteer moderators who can appropriately handle a wide range of situations.

Reinforced controls

Unlike many other popular social media platforms today, Discord servers often operate as closed communities, with invitations required to join. There are also large open servers flooded with millions of users, but Discord’s design incorporates content moderation tools to maintain order.

For example, a server creator has strict control over who has access to what and what permissions each server member can have to send, delete, or manage messages. Additionally, Discord allows community members to add automations to a server, continuously monitoring activity to enforce moderation standards.

With these protections, people use servers to form closed, tight-knit spaces safe from chaotic public squares like Twitter and less visible to the wider online world. This can be positive, keeping spaces safer from bullies, trolls and misinformation spreaders. In my own research, young people mentioned their Discord servers as the private and safe space they have online, unlike messy public platforms.

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However, moving online activity to more private spaces also means that these healthy, well-regulated communities are less visible to vulnerable groups who might need them. For example, new dads looking for social support are sometimes more likely to access it through open subreddits rather than Facebook groups.

Discord’s servers aren’t the first closed communities on the internet. These are essentially the same as old-fashioned chat rooms, private blogs, and curated mailing lists. They will have the same problems and opportunities as previous online communities.

Discussion on self-protection

In my view, the solution to this particular problem is not necessarily to ban certain practices or to regulate Internet companies. Research on youth online safety reveals that government regulations aimed at protecting minors on social media rarely have the desired result, and more often results in disempowering and isolating young people.

Just as parents and caring adults teach the children in their lives how to recognize dangerous situations in the physical world, talking about healthy online interactions can help young people protect themselves in the online world. Many youth-oriented organizations and internet companies offer internet safety information for children of all ages.

Whenever young people jump on the next tech fad, there will inevitably be panic over how adults, businesses, and society can or cannot keep young people safe. Most important in these situations is to remember that talking to young people about how they use these technologies and what to do in difficult situations can be an effective way to help them avoid serious harm online.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/what-teens-see-in-closed-online-spaces-like-the-discord-app-178741.

Jennifer C. Burleigh