What parents need to know about Twitch

(Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images)
(Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images)

Among the various social media platforms that have captivated kids is Twitch, a livestreaming service that reportedly draws more than 30 million people each day. Fiona Dubrosa, a visiting scholar at Cohen Children's Medical Center in New York City, says that she used Twitch during the pandemic “as a way to connect with friends” and sees it as a great tool for “community building” among those with similar interests. However, she tells Yahoo Life that while using the platform she saw “a very young streamer" and decided to dig deeper.

"It piqued my interest in understanding Twitch's landscape and the potential dangers that it might present for pediatric populations," says Dubrosa.

The results of Dubrosa’s research are alarming. In a study of 100 minor Twitch streamers, she and her colleagues found that minors — primarily 17 and under, though some were under the age of 13 — disclosed their names 47% of the time, stated their location 50% of the time, shared their schedules 38% of the time and provided other personal details 11% of the time. Notably, these personal details included streamers changing their outfits for viewers and mentioning specific locations they frequent. It also found that 37% of minor streamers in the study allowed viewers to donate money to them.

As the study sheds new light on how young people are using the app and how that might be exposing themselves to security risks, here's what parents need to know about Twitch.

What is Twitch?

Twitch is a social media platform with some unique features. On Twitch, users livestream content and creators interact with viewers via chat. Providing financial donations to creators, including minors, is a key part of Twitch.

Almost any type of content can be streamed, such as cooking lessons or live music. However, the most popular livestreams on Twitch are by creators who play video games while providing commentary.

What age is Twitch for?

According to Twitch’s terms of service, no one under 13 should use the platform. However, a review from Common Sense Media designates it as being more appropriate for only those aged 15 and up.

According to study co-author Dr. Ruth Milanaik, a developmental-behavioral pediatric specialist at Northwell Health, teens between 13 and 17 can safely use the service with “varying degrees of adult supervision.”

What are the dangers of using Twitch?

For young people, Twitch poses many of the same safety concerns as other social media platforms. Those include “predatory behavior, inappropriate content, lack of more secure and accurate age verification,” and the potential to harm mental health, says Laura Ordoñez, the senior editor and head of digital content and curation for Common Sense Media.

What's more, Twitch does not require users to register in order to view content. “This presents a unique danger to minors as they are observed and followed by many unknown, faceless individuals,” Milanaik says. She compares livestreaming on Twitch to leaving a window wide open in a child’s bedroom. “Viewers have the opportunity to view the child as they spend time on the platform, ask questions and make suggestions, which could be as innocent as turning right in a video game, but may be as suggestive as ‘Please change your shirt,’" she notes. All of this happens in real time.

Another concerning feature of Twitch is how easy it is to funnel money to minors. “Financial incentives may induce minors to participate in risky or uncomfortable behaviors,” Milanaik cautions. Dubrosa adds that “those with malicious intent” can “hide behind internet anonymity” which increases“the potential of economically exploiting children under the guise of financial support.”

While adults may be able to better weigh the risks of using Twitch, teens are particularly at risk. That’s because they are “inherently impulsive” and are “not necessarily thinking before they act, or considering the possible consequences of their behavior,” says Traci Williams, a board-certified psychologist who counsels families and children. Moreover, teens’ “concepts of privacy are often different from adults'," she adds. "They often readily share information about themselves that can put their safety at risk."

Ordoñez adds that teens often inadvertently disclose personal information on Twitch because they have a “false sense of security." “They may simply share videos about their day, but geotags and context clues make it easy to find out where they hang out and how to gain access to them,” Ordoñez explains. For example, a teen might start a livestream without realizing that the name of their school or favorite restaurant is visible in the background.

Are there any benefits to using Twitch?

Despite the risks of using the platform, experts say there can be benefits to using Twitch. “Twitch can provide a sense of community and may promote friendships between those with similar interests,” Milanaik says. It can also be “a great way to meet people and interact,” she adds.

Williams says that Twitch “allows teens to open their world up, with the ability to interact with other young people around the world.” This is particularly important for teens, because “adolescence is a crucial time for social development, when teens learn to connect with others in more complex and emotionally intimate ways,” she explains.

What can parents do?

When it comes to Twitch, Ordoñez says that it’s essential to help teens “develop skills, tools and information they need to stay safe, while also feeling empowered.”

Milanaik recommends that parents “remain vigilant.” She recommends that parents talk to their children about the risks of taking monetary compensation, engaging in risky conversations that could reveal the teen’s identity or location or “entering into more isolating situations,” such as chatting with someone who requests that they move to a private room or provide a way to contact them outside of Twitch.

Dubrosa says that parents “should feel empowered to watch over” their teen’s livestreams, “either physically or over the internet as a moderator.”

The takeaway

While Twitch shares many of the benefits and risks of other social media platforms, Dubrosa cautions thatthe nature of livestreaming prevents unique dangers, and the donation system can easily allow predators to prey on children.” While an outright ban isn’t likely to work, Williams says that parents of teens who use Twitch “should regularly remind their teens of the family’s rules around online behavior, including what is OK and not OK to share online."