Faced with lax moderation, teens are building ad hoc tools to protect their own dating servers
Illustration: Kelsey Niziolek
Originally pitched as a sort of ?Slack for gamers,? over the last four years Discord has attracted more than 250 million users and evolved into a catch-all chat platform that lets people debate politics, share music, and watch movies. In recent years, critics and journalists have accused the platform of lax moderation. Now, Discord has become a hub for potentially dangerous underage dating.
Discord ?servers? can be created by anyone in a region where the service is available, and function as small communities made up of both text and voice chat rooms. Dating servers are established to facilitate relationships, and the administrators of these servers often instruct users to list their interests, sexual orientation, and the nature of the romantic encounter they?re seeking.
Though Discord does ask users whether they are over 18 before joining channels and servers flagged as NSFW, the platform has no age verification process for checking the ages of users entering dating servers. That means dating servers have also drawn in underage users, with teenage Discord users creating and running dating servers targeted for other teens. OneZero reporting reveals that these servers have also attracted potentially predatory behavior. Six Discord users under the age of 18 spoke to OneZero, detailing their concerns about the safety of these teen dating servers. Four of them discussed how they try to keep their servers free of adults and bad actors.
Discord?s director of Trust and Safety, Sean Li, says underage dating channels are against company policy. ?We do not allow servers designed to facilitate teen dating on our platform,? Li tells OneZero. ?When we become aware of the existence of such servers, we quickly investigate and shut down any violating servers.?
Teen dating servers fall outside of the platform?s guidelines, Li explains, because ?they are likely to lead to activities that violate our Terms of Service,? and that the company is ?committed to making Discord a safe and positive place.? Those activities, a spokesperson elaborated, include ?minors sending illegal content, [and] predatory adults.? Discord says it is making an effort to improve its moderation policies. Earlier this year, the platform banned several alt-right servers for breaking its rules.
But OneZero was able to find and access numerous teen dating servers on Discord. Disboard.org ? a catalogue of Discord servers ? features thousands of servers tagged as ?dating.? Servers are often targeted to different communities, with some servers aimed at users interested in BDSM, and others reserved for queer users only. Among these, certain servers advertise themselves as dating spaces for ?teens only,? or from ?13 to 17.?
The existence of these dating servers has some experts worried. ?We can?t assume that kids are going to create safe servers,? says Anne Collier, executive director of the national nonprofit The Net Safety Collaborative, which assists schools in dealing with juvenile internet issues like cyberbullying. ?If you have hundreds of people using [one of these Discord] servers, then anyone at an Internet Crimes Against Children task force in any state AG?s office would say that?s flypaper for predators.?
?If they have a beard or something [they?ll get rejected.]?
The six teens who spoke to OneZero say that Discord offers a valuable service for kids looking to connect. Some insisted that the platform serves a necessary, positive part of their lives. ?I really like the idea of Discord dating servers, because Tinder seems to be more focused on one-night stands,? says Lilian, a 17-year old who runs a Discord dating server. ?With Discord, it?s a meeting place where you can label your server as different interests.? (All the underage sources who spoke to OneZero for this article were granted anonymity.) ?For example, my server has League of Legends, so people who are looking for love can match with other people who play League of Legends.?
But without system-wide tools to verify age and identity, the task of managing and protecting these channels from adult users falls on the underage moderators who created them. These users admit it?s a difficult responsibility.
?Fact of the matter is that wherever you are, you can?t stop people from lying,? says Bobby, a 16-year old who moderates a teen dating server. ?I tell people to come to me about that issue if it does happen, and I can easily ban them, or the person can easily block the other one if they see anything sketchy. Either way, it?s hard to stop them and it doesn?t apply to just Discord. It?s bad all around.?
Overall, Bobby says problematic behavior on his server is rare, and that generally, he says he gets ?the age group I want.?
Lilian says she has taken it upon herself to make sure her server is safe from predatory behavior. ?My server is for ages 14 and up, and divided into SFW and NSFW sections. To access the NSFW section, you need to present your ID to prove that you are 18 and older,? she says. (Even though Lilian is still underage, she says she moderates the NSFW section, but doesn?t ?participate? in it.)
Lilian tries to oversee her server as best she can, and has disallowed underage users from having a relationship with anyone three years older or younger than them. She says she personally requests images of driver?s licenses or other physical means of identification before allowing users into more sensitive parts of her domain. ?Obviously, I cannot control everything,? she continues. ?So I count on my members to tell me if they?re getting harassed in DMs, and I ban them immediately.?
Ryan and Harry, two 17-year old friends in New York, run another teen dating server, which they launched this past September. The pair has implemented a similar verification system to Lilian: In order to access some of the server?s chat rooms, users must first send a photo of themselves holding a piece of paper with their username written on it to the administration team. ?It?s so we can tell how old they are,? says Harry. ?If they have a beard or something [they?ll get rejected.]?
?A girl DMed me and said this one guy is being a bit weird, he?s asking me to take photos of myself in the shower.?
On the whole, Ryan and Harry say they think their server is safe, but they have concerns about the Discord community as a whole ? especially dating servers run by kids as young as 13 and 14. The two teens say problems have been few and far between. But they do come up; Harry says he feels like he and his co-moderators are the ?only line of defense.?
?A girl DMed me and said this one guy is being a bit weird, he?s asking me to take photos of myself in the shower,? remembers Ryan. ?I asked her for evidence, because I think the other admins wouldn?t have approved if I made the decision without any evidence. She did send evidence, and the messages themselves were creepy. We dealt with him on the spot immediately. She thought he was a threat, and we all thought he was a threat.? The offending user was permanently banned from Ryan and Harry?s server.
Lilian would like Discord to implement one policy that might make the platform safer: Permanently banning the IP addresses of those who?ve received multiple harassment complaints.
?We use a mix of proactive and reactive tools to keep activity that violates our policies off the platform,? a Discord spokesperson said in a statement. ?This includes automated search tools that scan photos and videos for exploitative content, holding community moderators accountable for upholding our policies, and also providing in-platform reporting mechanisms to surface violations.?
When asked if Discord has any plans of adding a more robust age verification system to the platform, Li reiterated that all teen dating servers violate the company?s terms of service. ?As a blanket policy, we do not require age verification for adult dating servers, unless those servers contain content that?s not suitable for minors,? he continued. ?In such cases, moderators are required to apply NSFW designation at the channel or server level. We also take action if we become aware of any adult server allowing minors to participate in any form of NSFW content.?
Discord is not the only platform struggling to address underage dating. Earlier this year, the Sunday Times reported that there have been over 60 cases of child sexual exploitation empowered by the weak age verification systems on dating apps such as Tinder and Grindr.