Online safety and the protection of children on the Internet are ongoing and constantly evolving conversations. While most parents are familiar with apps like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, a new communication platform you may not be familiar with is gaining popularity and can pose significant risks to children if left unsupervised. The platform is called Discord.
“Discord is a communication platform, where you can connect with other people,” said Michael Leczinsky, Head Coach and UAlbany eSports Program Director.
The University of Albany’s eSports team — coached by Michael Leczinsky — hosts 800 video game matches a year, and competing students use Discord for all of them. Founded in 2015, the platform has grown to over 150 million monthly active users across four billion servers.
So what exactly can you do with Discord? The company describes it as a voice, video and text communication service that allows people to talk with their friends and communities. Consider a program that combines the chat functionality of Microsoft Teams or Slack with the video and voice communication of Skype or Zoom, and you can live stream, all for free.
“It started with the gaming community,” Leczinsky said. “If you’re in a game – say your friend is across the country or across the world – you would use Discord to set up a server. And that server would only allow you to communicate with a certain number of persons.
What Leczinsky described is a private server, but there are also public servers on Discord, organized by topic channels.
“For example, the Fortnite game has one server, with 800,000 members,” Leczinsky said. “So public servers are kind of like public message boards.”
Discord was born out of the need for video game players to solve two problems: how to talk to each other in real time, and how to organize people to get the most out of their online gaming experience.
“Students constantly share video clips, strategies, they seek to improve their performance in the game,” Leczinsky said.
Discord advertises itself as a place where people can share their interests without any algorithm deciding what to see. For better or worse, conversations and content are driven by users. But even with millions of users on the platform leading the conversation, there are still community guidelines that Discord asks people to follow. These guidelines are intended to protect users from hateful behavior, threats or harassment.
Dr. Benjamin Yankson, an assistant professor in the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security, and Cybersecurity at the University at Albany, says there are a number of dangers that a pseudo-anonymous chat site as Discord represents for children. These include cyberbullying, sexting, exposure to adult content, predatory sexual behavior and solicitation, and even identity theft – through someone who convinces your child to give them sensitive information.
What can you do to protect your child from harm? Yankson says there are a number of security features you can enable in Discord’s account settings. Discord will let you block specific content, block direct messages, and restrict the type of friends you can accept on your account.
Going further, Yankson says you should take the time to learn about the platform’s functions. You can also engage your child in the discussion about safety, explaining to them why it is important to protect themselves and information on the Internet, and not to engage with strangers in inappropriate conversations. Finally – Yankson says try to be involved in your child’s use of Discord – and monitor the conversations they have on the platform.