Discord, a popular communication service used by over 100 million active monthly users, has exploded in popularity since the onset of COVID-19 sent most of the world into the digital space. But what started in 2015 as a haven for gamers has quickly morphed into a virtual meeting spot where sexual exploitation and abuse thrive. Now, exploiters go to Discord to groom children for sexual abuse or sex trafficking, and to trade pornography—including child sexual abuse materials, non-consensually recorded and/or shared pornography, and more.
The Discord platform is a widely used text, video, and audio chat app that can be found on computers, browsers, and mobile phones. Originally designed for video game users to chat with each other while playing online games, the app has gained popularity even outside of the gamer community, with over 30% of users claiming they use Discord for activities other than gaming. Discord itself has capitalized on this expansion of their brand, advertising Discord as a way for teachers to reach their classrooms, virtual book clubs to discuss their latest read, and even positioning Discord as a viable workplace alternative to Slack or Microsoft Teams.
The main feature of Discord is the servers–chat rooms where like-minded individuals can join and play and talk about virtually anything together, all in real-time. Servers can be open to the public or private, requiring invites and special passwords to join. Moderation within these servers has historically been mostly left up to the members themselves, relying on user reports to catch bad behavior. Discord’s marketing chief confirmed this, saying: “We will not go into a private server unless something is reported to us. We believe deeply that privacy is a right and something we should support as a company.” The age verification procedures are similarly lax. Users were not even asked their birthday upon signup until mid 2020—which now remains the only real age verification Discord provides for its users.
The laissez-faire moderation attitude from Discord has created an environment that fosters sexual exploitation and abuse on a mass scale.
This is why we’ve named Discord to the 2021 Dirty Dozen List, an annual campaign naming entities that profit from and facilitate sexual exploitation. Learn more about the rest of the list here, and TAKE ACTION urging Discord to take a stand against abuse and exploitation here.
With the expansion of Discord’s brand to include more than just gamers, the platform has opened its doors to predators and abusers and is allowing them to settle comfortably within Discord’s servers. While individual channels within a server can be age-gated with a “NSFW” tag, this is easily circumvented by Discord’s lack of true age verification or moderation. And finding these channels is not a difficult task—over 30,000 servers contain tagged NSFW content.
The real problem is not just the sheer amount of graphic content embedded throughout Discord, but the nature of that content. Pornography trading has become popular on the platform, where users can share links and images of themselves and others. Entire servers are dedicated to finding and sharing non-consensual sexual images of girls and women—sometimes known as revenge porn. Discord made international news in 2020 when one server revealed over 140,000 images of women and even minors had been widely shared and distributed.
Discord’s Safety Settings Fail to Protect Children
Discord has also struggled to protect children who use their platform from being targeted and contacted directly by adult predators. These bad actors are notorious for using and abusing online gaming systems and social media sites like Discord to befriend and then prey on vulnerable young people. One extreme case ended with two teenage boys being trafficked and held hostage for over a year after being groomed on Discord. A review of Discord from a concerned parent said this about the platform:
“Seriously poor protection for children. Firstly lets dispel the myth that your child on here is safe as they can block people and only be found by people they choose to link with. They meet these ‘people’ on games who befriend them there and from there send them to discord groups and invites therefore bypassing the invite system. My child has gotten involved with a group who are far beyond the realms of any decency and the conversations people were having with my 14 year old have made me sick. I am just glad I have found out in time to try and prevent any further psychological problems. He has been slowly groomed and I guess it could have been only a matter of time before something dangerous happened. I would seriously not recommend this to any child or parent until it gets some sort of filters and security in place to stop people creating and running these sort of perverted and deviant groups.”
While Discord has made minor improvements to their safety settings and filtering options, the filter settings can be easily altered or bypassed, and Discord thus far has failed to take sufficient proactive steps to protect its minor users with no available parental controls. This is an egregious betrayal of parents’ trust, who reasonably expect that safety settings will reliably protect their children. Discord also relies heavily on user reports and third-party bots to moderate content within servers, which is laughable given the nature of many of these exploitative and abusive servers and those that frequent them.
Sexual Grooming on Discord
Discord prides itself as a company and platform that treats others and the community with respect, and keeps itself as “a safe and friendly place for everyone.” However, in addition to Discord’s troubling association with hosting and normalizing exploitative explicit images, Discord has facilitated a space for sexual grooming by abusers or sex traffickers, leaving it anything but a safe and friendly place for minors. These abusers or traffickers know minors are on Discord, and utilize the platform to engage with minor users through mutual servers and direct messaging.
Grooming is more than adults simply talking online with children. Research shows just how dangerous this open contact from predators to vulnerable minors really is—one study found that predators who actually made contact with child victims are more likely to use the Internet to locate potential sexual abuse victims and engage in grooming behavior. Groomers use a variety of tactics to gain the victim’s trust, including using pornography as a tool to manipulate the child into believing the sexual abuse is normal. Another study noted:
“Indeed, part of the grooming process is the normalisation of sexual activity with children and breaking down inhibitions. Offenders use child pornography to teach children how to masturbate, perform oral sex and engage in sexual intercourse. Sometimes, blackmail is also involved, usually at the later stage, after the child has been exposed to some sort of pornography, or after the child has performed sexual favours. The saturation of the Internet with such material may serve to ‘normalise’ this behaviour and probably makes it easier to objectify children as sexual artifacts.”
Here are just a few examples of children being groomed and abused through Discord:
- A 12 year old girl was groomed for over two months and manipulated into leaving her California home in the middle of the night by a 40 year old predator.
- Two teenage boys were found in a sex trafficking ring where the traffickers used Discord to contact the victims.
- A 22 year old man was arrested when a 12 year old girl he had been talking to on Discord disappeared with him in a car.
- Several predators groomed a 12 year old boy by sending him explicit messages and even calling him over a period of six weeks, before his mother found out and deleted Discord.
- Clearly Discord can be counted among the technological advances propelling predators’ access to minors. This fact is greatly concerning as sexual harassment and assault continues to become more rampant in society. Even more disconcerting is the potential role Discord is playing in the facilitation of child abuse and sex trafficking.
There are no official statistics reporting on the age breakdown of Discord users, but with the company’s rapid growth and the popularity of collaborative games like Fortnite, Minecraft, and Among Us, it’s safe to say millions of teenagers and kids are using Discord regularly. And while some changes have been made recently—including a new “Transparency Report” to be published bi-annually and a “Safety Center”—it is clear that Discord is still not willing to prioritize child safety by providing parental controls and enhanced safety defaults for minor accounts.
The National Center on Sexual Exploitation encourages Discord to make the following improvements:
- Develop and implement parental controls, so parents can monitor and streamline their child’s experience on Discord and ensure basic safety is being met.
- Automatically default minor-aged accounts to the highest level of safety and privacy available on the Discord platform.
- Automatically ban any minor-aged account from joining servers that contain NSFW content.
- Develop and implement moderation strategies that proactively detect and remove pornography—especially in regard to servers dedicated to trading hardcore and non-consensual material.
- Provide education to all users and parents on the potential harms and risks associated with exploitation and abuse on Discord, and feature prominent reporting processes on all forms of Discord’s interface.
The millions of vulnerable youths using Discord are at risk of being harassed, groomed, abused, and exposed to harmful content and experiences on the platform. No longer can companies claim ignorance or avoid accountability—corporations have a responsibility to ensure their technology is not used for sexual exploitation.
Help us hold Discord accountable by taking action with our 2021 Dirty Dozen List!