What Parents Need to Know About Discord

What Parents Need to Know About Discord
Photo: Postmodern Studio, Shutterstock

If you — or your teenager — are into gaming, you’ve likely at least heard of Discord, even if you haven’t used it yourself. It’s one more way for teenagers to connect with their friends and chat about gaming or other topics via private or public servers, individual messages, or group chats. But, as with any social network like this, there is also the potential for them to be exposed to mature themes, abusive language, cyber bullying, and other inappropriate content.

What is Discord?

Before we talk about how to best safeguard your teenager against straight-up predators and garden-variety arseholes, let’s start with some basics. Discord is a free voice, video, and text chat app geared toward people ages 13 and older to “hang out” and converse with their friends. It’s largely used by gamers as a way to chat in real time while playing video games together, but it can be used to talk about virtually any topic. Here’s how Discord describes itself:

People use Discord daily to talk about many things, ranging from art projects and family trips to homework and mental health support. It’s a home for communities of any size, but it’s most widely used by small and active groups of people who talk regularly.

The vast majority of servers are private, invite-only spaces for groups of friends and communities to stay in touch and spend time together. There are also larger, more open communities, generally centered around specific topics such as popular games like Minecraft and Fortnite. All conversations are opt-in, so people have total control over who they interact with and what their experience on Discord is.

The “servers” are basically spaces where people can gather to chat. There are large public servers, but any user can also create their own free, private server and invite their friends to join. Within each server, there may be a variety of voice and text channels for different topics and with different rules to follow. A server dedicated to offering help with homework, for example, may have a “general chat” channel, as well as channels for each subject matter.

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Privacy and safety features

Discord does not have strict parental control features; your teenager will be able to view and change their own account settings simply by going to User Settings > Privacy & Safety. However, under that section, you do have a few options related to content filters and how other users can interact with them.

The first thing you should do is go to User Settings > Privacy & Safety and then select “Keep me safe” at the top, which Discord says will “automatically scan and delete direct messages you receive that contain explicit media content.” Other options are “My friends are nice,” which means messages sent from approved friends would not be scanned, and “Do not scan,” which you definitely do not want.

Screenshot: Meghan Moravcik Walbert / Discord Screenshot: Meghan Moravcik Walbert / Discord

Beyond that, there are a few options related to who can request to add a user as a friend, who can send them direct messages, and who can join them in a game. The default settings allow for the most contact with the widest range of people, so you’ll probably want to lock that down at least somewhat so that not everyone can add them as a friend, and to restrict who can send them private messages. By default, whenever a user joins a server with someone else, they can send them direct messages, but you can restrict it so that DMs can only come from people on your teen’s friends list. That’s especially important if they join the larger public servers.

Like most social networks, you can also block or mute users who troll or begin to become a nuisance. Right-clicking their profile name will give you a menu of options, including blocking them. Discord also includes a form for parents to report users and problems on behalf of their teen, without the parents needing a Discord account themselves.

Discord also says that “adult content must be posted in a channel marked ‘Not Safe for Work’ (NSFW), which cannot be accessed by users under 18.” But as Common Sense Media points out:

Because it’s all user-generated, there’s plenty of inappropriate content, like swearing and graphic language and images (though it’s entirely possible to belong to a group that forbids these). Discord also has “NSFW” channels and servers that require users to be 18 or older to join (but it’s easy to click through the verification).

And it’s probably unsurprising that Discord is known for having its darker side, as the Wall Street Journal reports:

Jack Friedman, a 13-year-old from Long Island, N.Y., goes on Discord every day to talk to friends while playing “Fortnite” or “Minecraft.” Jack has been both a target and a bully. One time, players who had joined Jack’s server killed his “Minecraft” character and stole all of his items. In retaliation, he and his friends trash-talked the interlopers and then banned them.

“I’ll be in these servers where people change their names to ‘ISIS’ and make 9/11 jokes,” he said, adding that 9/11 memes are popular. “I was in this one server and a German guy joined and people were making Holocaust jokes. He got angry and left.”

Ultimately, Common Sense Media does recommend the app for ages 13 and older, particularly if teenagers are using it in the safest way possible (by only accepting friend requests and participating in private servers with people they already know).

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Talk through all of this with your teenager

As I mentioned, there are no parental controls on Discord that allow you to implement and lock down any of these restrictions. Your teenager can immediately open everything back up the second you turn your back and enter public servers, if they wanted. So if you do allow them to use the app, it’s important to talk to your teenager about online safety, privacy, cyber bullying, and how these settings help to keep them safe and comfortable.

Reiterate that they should only accept friend requests from people they know and trust, and they should block anyone who bothers them. And finally, don’t let them use the app if they’re younger than age 13 — and make sure they enter their real birthday when creating their profile.

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