Twitch: An Enticing Platform for Kids… and Maybe Online Predators

A ground-breaking app by the name of Twitch hit the scene more than a decade ago, joining the ranks of growing online social media giants like Facebook and Twitter, both of which have become a near-constant presence in the lives of hundreds of millions of people worldwide. While large-scale social media started with Facebook (now known as Meta), new social media websites and apps like Twitter and Discord have exploded in popularity. What was once a curious corner of the Internet is now a landscape of multi-million dollar platforms connecting millions of people every day.

The ubiquitous nature of social media has meant that children now make up a substantial percentage of the worldwide audience, sometimes exceeding the number of adult users depending on the app or website. But sadly, as with almost everything on the Internet, dangers both real and virtual can sometimes threaten the physical and psychological well-being of the youngest people in our lives. Because of this, websites and apps like Twitch have become potential concerns for parents, grandparents, and guardians almost everywhere.

What Kind of Platform is Twitch?

In a nutshell, Twitch is the kind of platform that allows users to become virtual spectators of live video game broadcasts. Initially designed by and for serious gamers, this app turned online video gaming into a digital spectator sport almost overnight; it has since gained much broader appeal, allowing anyone to broadcast whatever they are playing on their computer, smartphone, or tablet to a potentially worldwide audience.

So, what do kids enjoy about Twitch? Primarily, it’s the attraction of a live platform with all the immediacy that makes the Internet an exciting and vibrant place. Just like standing in an old-time amusement arcade watching someone hit an all-time high score on a Donkey Kong video game, many children these days find a great deal of entertainment in watching other people play video games online. Twitch provides a thrill similar to what grandparents, and even some older parents, will recall from the old video arcade days — it’s exciting to watch because ANYTHING can happen.

With the debut of the Twitch app in 2011, online gaming fans found an enticing platform that allowed them to “tune in” to a wide range of single and multi-player video games streamed in real-time. Realizing the potential of this new kind of spectator app, Amazon purchased Twitch for almost a billion dollars in 2014. Following its purchase of Twitch, Amazon generally applied a hands-off business approach to the platform although it has offered its Prime subscribers certain perks, such as free games and the purchase of in-game “loot.”

While Twitch made a name for itself early on as a venue for hardcore gamers, these days almost anything can be streamed live on the platform — from city council meetings to NBA games and even the New York Times Crossword. Despite safeguards, almost any youngster with access to an internet-capable device can join Twitch — and as with other social media platforms, this often takes place without a parent’s knowledge.

Depending on the parental control and privacy settings, the chat feature on Twitch can allow a younger viewer to send messages via a chat “window,” all of which will be visible to the channel’s broadcaster, as well as other viewers. If a child wants to send a private message to another user — again, depending on the account’s settings — the platform is designed to allow direct messaging, known as “whispers,” without the knowledge of the broader audience. This private messaging feature can also make it much easier for online predators, who may use it to send unsolicited messages to children and thereby initiate a line of communication that could end up being harmful.

With millions of daily viewers accessing the Twitch platform, parents may ask themselves whether Twitch is still safe for their kids. And while dads and moms may find nothing too worrisome about their preteen watching a high school football game or local PTA meeting online, the Twitch chat feature can make even these kinds of events potentially more dangerous for minors, who could end up being stalked online by an adult using the app. It is this darker side of Twitch, like many social media websites and apps, that poses the greatest potential threat to kids these days.

Real-Time Content and Its Potential Risk to Kids

Due to its interactive nature, diverse online community, as well as wide-ranging subjects and content, Twitch is a very attractive venue for young people. The platform’s chat function adds to that appeal by giving kids the ability to talk with other participants, many of whom are strangers of varying ages and interests. In an ideal world, these kinds of interactions would be harmless and fun; but because anyone can join Twitch, there is always a danger that someone with bad intent could be on the platform and using it to search out vulnerable individuals.

Of course, this is true of almost any online platform that provides real-time interactions with a wide variety of users. Inevitably though, this means there will always be some level of increased risk to kids in terms of online bullying, exposure to adult topics, or even the possibility of being groomed or stalked by a cyber predator on the app or website.

Since the greatest attraction for users of Twitch is the platform’s live streaming feature; audience commentary, just like gameplay, is taking place live in real-time. This live component makes it very difficult to filter undesirable content from younger users, especially those who misstate their age or go behind their parent’s back to join the platform. And even though Amazon increased its efforts to monitor activity on Twitch, instances of hate speech, made-up news stories, and cyberbullying still tend to slip by the app’s proctors and fact-checkers.

The danger of online predators notwithstanding, Twitch’s platform is one that easily lends itself to the sharing of content that may be unsuitable for younger users. The difficulties involved in filtering a live feed with questionable content that might reach children became clear in 2019 when a gunman live-streamed a shooting at a German synagogue. Although Twitch claimed that only a handful of users viewed the shooting as it occurred, news reports afterward stated that approximately 2,200 people were able to watch a recording of the attack — which left two dead and two wounded — before the recorded footage was taken down after 30 minutes.

Real-time violence, such as that 2019 attack, and possible exposure to cyberbullying, hate speech, and other unsuitable content reveal a more ominous side of the Twitch live-stream experience, for which parents must continue to be vigilant.

Youngsters and the Monetary Side of Twitch

Twitch is available in both a free and paid version, the latter of which eliminates ads, which can help to limit some of the advertising-related dangers for youngsters who spend a lot of time on the platform. However, simply signing up for the paid version of Twitch cannot negate every danger posed by this app, or any other social media site, for that matter.

In addition to removing ads, the paid version of Twitch affords users access to a greater variety of features, such as badges and cloud-enabled storage. Some of the platform’s activities are made possible through the spending of “Bits,” which can be purchased through Amazon, Paypal, or Apple using real-world money — for young kids, Bits will typically be purchased using their parent’s credit card.

In addition to rooting for their favorite gamers and subscribed streaming venues, Twitch users can make monetary donations to their favorite broadcasters and channels. There is no lack of stories on the Internet recounting children who inappropriately used their parent’s credit card on this or that website or app. In worst-case scenarios, parents find themselves getting into financial trouble if a child happens to get ahold of his parent’s credit card and uses it without permission.

One extreme case involved a 14-year-old Twitch user who managed to rack up $20,000 worth of charges on his mother’s credit card for various channel donations and subscriptions without her knowledge until her monthly statement arrived in the mail. Needless to say, the monetary aspect of Twitch can only add to a parent’s worry over what their kids may be doing on the platform, especially if the parent allows his or her child to use their credit card to buy Bits or access other for-pay features.

How can Families Protect Their Young Children and Teens from Becoming Cyber Targets?

Although difficult at times, families can protect their young children and teens from becoming cyber targets by understanding the way Twitch and other social media platforms function and how they draw in their audiences. Taking an active role in what platforms your child is visiting can go a long way toward protecting them from cyberbullies and online predators.

Unlike some platforms, such as Discord and Twitter, Twitch tends to have a higher barrier to entry than most when it comes to communication between users of the platform. For instance, in order to chat with others on a Twitch channel, the viewer must be a follower of that channel; and even then, he or she must be approved to participate in that channel’s chat by the “broadcaster.” And unlike other apps, Twitch maintains strict rules and regulations pertaining to content, which can also help reduce a youngster’s risk of being exposed to potentially inappropriate content, or contact.

Twitch is primarily a live streaming platform that allows users to broadcast gameplay, art, or other events/activities to their audience. Of course, due to the nature of a live online platform, there is always a chance that a person approved to participate on a particular Twitch channel may, in fact, have ulterior motives. This is why parents should always consider having a thoughtful discussion early on with their children regarding safe online practices, and maintaining open and honest communication between parent and child going forward.

Keep in mind that while Twitch does have community guidelines and moderation systems in place to protect users, the potential for a child to be stalked or groomed by a cyber predator continues to exist. Twitch viewers and broadcasters can still communicate through private messaging, which predators may attempt to exploit when targeting young kids. The popularity of the Twitch platform means there is a large and growing user base, which translates into a greater opportunity for online predators to seek out those more vulnerable, and often younger users.

Ultimately, it is imperative for parents to monitor their child’s activity on any social media platform and to help them learn about staying safe online. Parents can take steps such as setting up some kind of parental controls and limiting their child’s exposure to potentially risky situations. Parents may also want to educate their child on how to recognize and report inappropriate behavior or content. Below are some tips for protecting your kids from online threats on Twitch and other platforms:

  1. Watch together, with your child — Twitch’s terms of service specify that a gamer must be at least 13 years old; and that all participants under 18 must have parental supervision. Helping your child to create their account, along with watching together, or “co-watching” may be the best approach to ensuring a parent knows exactly what channels and streamers a youngster is subscribed to
  2. Block any mature content — The Twitch platform makes channel recommendations based on what channels a user is currently subscribed to. While co-watching with your child, if a suggested channel looks like it contains adult or mature content, click “not interested” for that recommendation; that way, you’ll be telling the platform’s artificial intelligence (AI) software that kind of content is not suitable for your child. (This would also be a good time to discuss what kind of streaming channels he or she should steer clear of, and why)
  3. Set the accountholder’s age to below 18 years old — When creating your child’s account, be sure to set the user’s age as under 18. It is often recommended not to use a child’s real name or birth date for any online accounts in order to safeguard their data privacy, but choosing an age below 18 will signal to the platform’s software that you want it to filter out any adult topics or sexual, as well as other flagged content. Keep in mind that Twitch sends content warnings to users under 18 years old for any channels that contain topics that are “inappropriate for younger audiences”
  4. Block the “Whispers” feature — When setting up a child’s account on Twitch, it’s best to block the Whispers feature; doing so will block any private messaging from a stranger (strangers are defined as anyone who is NOT a friend, follower, sub, mod or editor). To block private messaging from strangers, go to “Settings,” then click “Security and Privacy,” and click on “Block Whispers from Strangers.” If you are doing this alongside your child, take the opportunity to discuss the dangers of online predators and why it’s important for their safety
  5. Beware strangers who request personal info — Children should be reminded to not give out any personal information; neither their own nor another family member’s private data. When talking to your kids, tell them that from time to time they may be asked by a stranger (in private or even on a community chat) for information specifically about them or a family member. It’s best to err on the side of caution, so kids should be careful not to reveal anything private. If necessary, a user on Twitch can block or report another participant for questionable behavior by clicking on that individual’s name and choosing to “block” or “report” them. Better safe than sorry
  6. Limit a child’s screen time — Whether it’s Twitch, Facebook, Discord, or any of the dozens of popular social media and gaming platforms, spending too much time online is not good for anyone, much less for a child. Parents can take advantage of screen time control apps like Qustodio, Bark, and Kaspersky Safe Kids to monitor and set limits on children’s screen time. Limited screen time is important, especially with a platform like Twitch, which has hundreds of channels that stream content 24/7. In addition to limiting overall screen time, also consider establishing online-free times, such as during school hours, study time at home, meal time, and overnight when kids should be sleeping, not staying up all night on their electronic devices

While Twitch can be fun for many youngsters, the real-time aspect of this platform presents numerous opportunities for kids to access age-inappropriate content. With easy access to mature content and a potentially dangerous chat feature, Twitch can be a nightmare for parents of young children who have ready access to the Internet. Combine the aforementioned concerns with a lack of in-app parental control options and this may be a rather risky platform for younger users.

When it comes to teens, parents can try some co-watching early on to see which channels their child frequents and what they enjoy participating in. Continue with a discussion on how to handle cyberbullies and understand how privacy settings can reduce the possible dangers from online predators; this can help equip a young person to navigate this exciting platform while staying safe; all of which may give parents a little peace of mind and sleep better at night.