The Dark Side of Discord for Teens


CNN Business –

When a mother in Washington state learned her teenage daughter was on Discord, a popular social media platform, she felt reasonably comfortable with the idea of her using it to communicate with members of her high school marching band.

But in September, the mother discovered the 16-year-old was also using the audio and chat service to message with someone who appeared from his profile picture to be an older man. The stranger, who said he lived in England, entered a group chat that included her daughter and members of the band, according to the mother. They struck up a friendship in a private thread. He asked for nude pictures; her daughter obliged.

“I went through every chat they ever had but the most disturbing thing, beyond the nudes, was that he asked her to send a picture of our house,” said the mother, who, like other parents of young Discord users, asked to remain anonymous, citing concerns about their family’s privacy. “My daughter went on Zillow, found our home and sent it, so he knew where she lives. He then asked what American school buses looked like, so she took a photo of her bus and sent it.” He then requested pictures of her friends, and she sent those, too.

The mother worried the Discord user was manipulating, tracking and planning to exploit her daughter. After shutting down her daughter’s Discord account, an effort she said took six weeks for the company to complete, she installed outdoor security cameras around the home. The mother never reported the incident to Discord, and the conversations are no longer available to flag because the account was deleted. “There’s lots of things we should have done in hindsight,” she said.

In recent months, large social media companies have faced renewed scrutiny from lawmakers over the negative impacts their platforms can have on teens. Executives from Facebook (FB), Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat’s parent company were called to testify before the Senate after leaks from a Facebook (FB) whistleblower pointed to Instagram’s potential to harm one’s mental health and body image, especially among teenage girls.

Lawmakers are now weighing legislation to protect kids online – a bipartisan bill was introduced in the Senate last month which proposes new and explicit responsibilities for tech platforms to protect children from digital harms. President Joe Biden also used part of his State of the Union address to urge lawmakers to “hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit.”

Discord, however, has not been part of that conversation. Launched in 2015, Discord is less well-known among parents than big names like Instagram, even as it surged to 150 million monthly active users globally during the pandemic. The service, which is known for its video game communities, is also less intuitive for some parents, blending the feel of early AOL chat rooms or work chat app Slack with the chaotic, personalized world of MySpace. While much of the focus from lawmakers with other platforms has been on scrutinizing more sophisticated technologies like algorithms, which can surface potentially harmful content to younger users, parents’ concerns about Discord recall an earlier era of the internet: anonymous chat rooms.

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