The following animation contains a reconstruction of undercover conversations The Groningen Observer had with a 29-year-old man on a social network called Discord. He was under the impression that he was speaking to a 15-year-old girl.
These messages are emblematic of a larger problem that has long plagued the internet: minors are often unsafe. Children are easily able to find themselves in digital spaces shared with online predators. Once they get talking, a predator may seek to build an emotional connection with a minor and start requesting sexual favors, either offline or online (also known as grooming).
Data on the number of minors affected by online sexual abuse, specifically grooming, remains insufficient. The Dutch Study Centre for Criminality and Law Enforcement (NSCR) says that “in regards to online sexual violence, it is unclear and difficult to put into statistics because numbers on the nature and severity differ. It’s largely unknown what behavior counts as online sexual violence and it is likely underreported.”
Additionally, Discord is routinely left out of the conversation surrounding online child abuse. CNN writes that “Discord is less well-known among parents than big names like Instagram.” Lawmakers are focusing on algorithms, while Discord reminds us of “an earlier era of the internet: anonymous chat rooms.”
Discord – A place to be yourself?
Discord was released on May 13th of 2015. The brainchild of Jason Citron and Stanislav Vishnevskiy, two Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs, revolutionized communication for online gamers.
Designed for the creation of online communities, Discord allows users to interact through text messages, voice calls, and video calls. This is done in private conversations or as part of servers.
Servers are group-based chat rooms that work on an invite-basis, “organized into topic-based channels where you can collaborate, share, and just talk about your day without clogging up a group chat.”
Graphic showcasing Discord’s different features (Source: Discord)
Any individual, friend group, or community can create one and customize it to their liking. The official Discord server for Genshin Impact (2020) brings together people from all over the world who play the popular action role-playing game. They currently have over 1 million members.
What started out as a place for gamers has quickly evolved into the foremost online community-building tool. Discord now has upwards of 150 million monthly active users and 19 million active servers per week.
Dating on Discord
Discord has even been used to find love. “Some end up dating people they met organically on a hobby- or interest-based channel, while others deliberately join dating servers dedicated to dating, where people can post their profiles and create chat rooms to meet new people,” Vice reports.
Such servers have rapidly increased in both numbers and sophistication. One example is DateRoom, the self-proclaimed “Best Server For Dating” with over 36.000 members.
The server contains features to help people get in touch with others. There are chat rooms dedicated to topics like anime, gaming, and music to facilitate group conversations.
Members can also use a menu to create a server profile: “a way to express yourself, your likes, dislikes, age, hobbies and a lot more.” Afterwards, your profile gets posted to the dedicated channel for people to scroll through and find you.
Another way to encourage private conversations are the ‘searching’ text channels. Here, individuals can post a short message asking for people of a certain gender to send them a DM (or direct message).
Although most channels are open to everyone, some are limited to people with subscriptions. DateRoom’s subscription service consists of four different levels: gold, platinum, diamond, and elite. These monthly payments grant perks like being able to share images in chat, use GIFs, or access private channels.
Other channels are only accessible to those who are ‘18+ & Selfie Verified’. DateRoom employs a verification method where members send the staff a picture of them and their ID to confirm their age.
This is, however, not mandatory.
Going undercover in DateRoom
As a result, Discord and its dating servers have become yet another avenue for predators to enact online child abuse. These servers remain crawling with minors. And those who seek to take advantage of them.
They often get away with their vile practices due to anonymity, an online predator’s greatest tool. It happened to be one of ours too, as we went undercover in DateRoom using a fake persona named ❀ Jess ❀. She’s a 15-year-old girl from the Netherlands who is pretending to be 18.
Within twenty minutes of sending a message in the ‘female searching’ channel, we had over thirty DM requests. Our account was flooded with men interested in striking up a conversation with us. Our goal: see what would happen if, after talking to them briefly, we revealed that “Jess” is actually 15.
Fortunately, there were some who urged us to be cautious, stay away from adults, and leave Discord. One man told us “I don’t talk to people under 18. I think you should focus on other things than Discord. You are a kid now,” adding “you might be mature but I think you should stay away from this app for sure.”
Another said to “be careful because [DateRoom] is full of weird people.” These instances confirmed that a lot of them are fully aware of the danger dating servers pose to minors.
In addition to the Dutchman from the start of our article, there were ten individuals (ages 18 to 25) that were indifferent to our age and continued talking to us.
Some wanted to know what we looked like before making up their mind. “How about this, let me see what you look like, and if you look nice enough, I will stay,” said one. Another stated that “it would be nice to know that you look decently mature before we go too far.”
A portion of our anonymous admirers began sending us flirtatious messages as we continued to establish a connection with them:
Others went as far as to become sexually suggestive, exhibiting a desire for intimacy with 15-year-old Jess:
We even encountered a set of minors ourselves. A 14-year-old and a 16-year-old, further confirming that dating servers facilitate interactions between children and adults. It opens these boys up to sexual contact, as well as potentially being exploited once they reveal their real age.
A YouTube Trend
A popular genre of YouTube videos partially inspired our investigation into Discord. Content creators attempt to catch and expose predators, spawning endless variations and garnering millions of views.
American YouTuber Novaleon has been making these videos for just over a year now. We were able to interview him, somewhat ironically over Discord. The 20-year-old chooses to remain anonymous online as a precaution against the alleged predators he exposes.
His methods are largely the same as ours. He finds a dating server, joins it on a fake account, and then starts DMing people. “As soon as they start talking inappropriately, I’ll say my age,” he says.
The people Novaleon has come across are a lot more extreme than our experiences. “The most explicit and dangerous kind of people are the ones who send a picture of their genitals first as an introduction.”
He recalls one instance where someone “kept on saying sexual things.” Novaleon adds that “he wanted to do these really weird sexual acts. I don’t want to describe it, it’s actually horrendous. It makes me disgusted.”
Driven by a desire to “expose these types of people who are hurting a platform that should be for everyone,” Novaleon hopes he can bring more awareness to the issue. “The reason I put it on YouTube is to inform more people and encourage them to be safer on Discord.” He also tries to discourage pedophiles from seeking out minors on the platform.
He claims Discord itself is not doing enough: “I feel like they’re not promoting the safety of kids.” In regards to the reporting system, he notes “there might have been like one or two people that got banned from Discord because I sent it in, but that’s it really. There’s a lot more that they’re not taking care of.”
Measures to keep minors safe
Discord has implemented features to shield children from “inappropriate content or unwanted contact.” On “Helping your teen stay safe on Discord,” they suggest enabling more strict explicit media content, DM, and friend request settings.
In addition, dating servers with explicit channels have been banned from being used on Discord mobile on iOS as per App Store guidelines. However, this is a measure taken by Apple, rather than Discord itself. It far from solves the problem.
Discord does require all dating servers to exclude minors, but due to the platform’s largely anonymous nature, this has been hard to enforce. We went through DateRoom’s support system and opened a ticket in order to speak to management about the way their server is regulated.
“Everyone must be over 18 to access [dating servers] because of California Law.” However, people can lie about their age when making accounts. Their response: “we’re always banning every potential underage user…but simply with our abilities it’s almost impossible.”
Concerning the server’s 18+ selfie verification, we wondered why this is not a requirement for all users to get into the server. “Later this year, server will be fully verified – you’ll need to be verified to get access to the server,” they said before asking “may I know why you keep questioning me?”
After repeating the nature of our investigation, as well as asking what motivated them to move to full verification, we were told “I don’t have time to respond to any more questions, there is plenty of other Discord servers feel free to DM them.”
Someone else then came in to answer our questions and appeared to directly contradict the previous staff member. They said “we have discussed [moving to verified only] months ago and didn’t think it was the right time to do so. However, we may reconsider doing this in the future.”
Upon asking for clarification they responded “oh my bad for not explaining well, we will definitely be doing this, we just don’t have a certain timeframe. We don’t view it as necessary at this exact moment & time.”
We once again pushed them to explain why they were making that decision, as well as why not earlier. The team became unresponsive and our ticket was eventually terminated. Mandatory verification has likely not yet been implemented because it would significantly decrease the number of potential members and, more importantly, subscribers.
What can be done?
There are multiple organizations that aim to combat child abuse in the Netherlands. The Expertise Centre Online Child Abuse (EOKM) is an overarching body that manages Stop It Now, Helpwanted and Meldpunt Kinderporno (Childporn Hotline).
Stop it Now is where those with feelings for minors or who have sexually harassed or assaulted children can go to tell their story, receiving help and advice. Helpwanted deals with victims of online sexual harassment and offers advice to those that suspect others have fallen victim.
EOKM and its subsidiaries could not provide us with a comment on the nature of their help, or about Discord specifically. The Dutch Ministry of Justice has also yet to respond to questions regarding its approach to taking on online child abuse.
Slachtofferhulp Nederland, another organization aiming to help victims of all kinds, could be reached. They said “75% of people we help were referred to us by the police and 25% reached out personally.” In relation to online sexual abuse, “we almost always refer them to Helpwanted.”
The online spaces where minors are targeted are not monitored by Slachtofferhulp Nederland, which leaves out specific scrutiny of a place like Discord.
Only Discord itself can truly work to crack down on child abuse happening on its platform. We reached out to them for comments about their strategies in doing so, but they did not get back to us.
For the time being, users of all ages should be cautious about sharing sensitive information with others, as well as remaining vigilant about the people they interact with. Discord can be an incredible tool for online connectivity, but it certainly has a dark side.