Do you know who is watching your kids on Twitch?
You probably don’t — nor do your kids — and often anonymous viewers can get users’ personal information from watching them stream on the service, according to new research.
Twitch is an online streaming service in which users can live stream their gaming, music and other creative content.
Joining the interactive platform can help create feelings of community, but streamers age 13 and younger often share information that can put them at risk for exploitation with viewers all around the world, said coauthor Fiona Dubrosa, a visiting scholar at Cohen’s Children Medical Center in New York City.
The study looked at 100 minors ages 17 and under who streamed content about popular video games, and the research collected data on them as well as their 1.76 million followers.
The researchers identified some users as under 13.
Young streamers shared their names 47% of the time and locations 50% of the time, the research found. It was presented in an abstract Friday at the 2023 American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference & Exhibition in Washington, DC.
About 38% provided schedules of when they would be live — which often also indicated what city they were in — and viewers were able to donate money to 37% of the streamers, according to the research.
“This is a study about maintaining safe practices that allow parents and caregivers to feel comfortable about letting their children join this world, which adults know can be a very scary place,” Dubrosa said.
“Any predatory behavior that targets kids is abhorrent,” said Elizabeth Busby, a spokesperson for Twitch. “In line with our youth safety policy, attempts to facilitate inappropriate interactions with youth, including grooming and coercion, are strictly prohibited on our service.
“Using automated tools and behavioral signals, we monitor Twitch 24/7/365 for content and channels that may violate our youth safety policy, and quickly remove those accounts.”
What Twitch does to protect kids
The platform takes steps that aim to protect kids, Dubrosa said.
It requires users to be 13 years of age or older, limits the type of content that can be streamed, and reports illegal content to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, she added.
But those measures can be easily skirted, Dubrosa said.
The service asks users to verify that they are 13 years old or older in its terms and conditions, Dubrosa said.
“I know nobody reads the terms and policies,” she said. “I know that doesn’t necessarily affect the actions of young users who are excited to be on the internet and want to be a part of the community.”
“To be clear, kids under the age of 13 aren’t allowed on Twitch, and we suspend all accounts for users who claim or are confirmed to be under the age limit,” Busby said.
Viewers can interact with streamers, and sometimes they can even send money with messages attached, Dubrosa said.
But Twitch can be a place for people to form community, she said.
“There’s a lot of good connection that goes on online,” said Janis Whitlock, senior adviser for The Jed Foundation, a nonprofit organization that focuses on the mental health of young adults. She was not involved in the research.
“There’s a lot to share that could be really positive. It’s just like with a lot of other social media platforms. There’s just huge gaping holes for negative content and exposure and exchange to happen.”
How to keep the fun and minimize risks
Dubrosa said she found comfort in using Twitch during the pandemic lockdown when she and her friends would use it to feel as if they were playing cards in person or listening to music together.
As with many social media platforms, people can use Twitch for nefarious purposes, Whitlock said, and children are often more vulnerable — especially considering how intimate and connected the platform can feel.
“They need to understand that people can misrepresent themselves and that some people can be very devious,” she said.
Whitlock encourages adults to keep an open line of communication.
If your children get into situations that feel overwhelming, you want them to know they can come to you for help figuring out what to do, she said.
And families and caregivers need to pay closer attention to what their kids are doing online and how they can participate safely, said Dr. Ruth Milanaik, the study’s principal investigator who is an attending physician at the developmental and behavioral pediatrics division of Cohen Children’s Medical Center.
Milanaik said she hopes parents and caregivers start looking into the information children share online and the content they are streaming.
“In this context when children are playing their games, they’re not thinking of the consequences of perhaps being in front of people that they’re not aware of,” she said.
“When you go to a playground and someone who isn’t supposed to be there is standing there, everybody turns around. They say, ‘What is that person doing?’ In their online playground, no one watching.”
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that the minors of the study included children ages 17 and under, some identified as under 13.
Update: This story has been updated to include statements by Twitch’s spokesperson.