Kids are forming hacking groups online. Here’s what to do

When people hear the word “hacker,” they probably picture a man sitting alone in a dark room in front of a computer. He has a black screen with green computer code in front of him. Maybe he’s wearing a hoodie with the hood pulled up. (He’s definitely wearing a hoodie with the hood pulled up.) What they probably don’t picture is their teenage kid. 

But maybe they should, as Avast has discovered an online community creating, exchanging, and spreading malware on the popular communication platform Discord. The group advertises easy-to-use malware builders and toolkits so that users can DIY their own ransomware, information stealers, and crypto miners. And while there are many hacking forums on Discord, this one is composed mainly of teenagers. 

Avast malware researcher Jan Holman says that kids and teens are attracted to the groups because they see hacking as cool and fun. The malware builders provide an easy entry — they require no actual programming, just customization of functions and appearance — into this activity and allow kids to prank people and make money. And the community aspect of a Discord server also provides a sense of camaraderie and community.

“However, these activities by far aren’t harmless, they are criminal,” Holman says. “They can have significant personal and legal consequences, especially if children expose their own and their families’ identities online or if the purchased malware actually infects the kids’ computer, leaving their families vulnerable by letting them use the affected device. Their data, including online accounts and bank details, can be leaked to cybercriminals.”

So what can parents do about it? First, let’s take a look at Discord — what it is, why kids love it, and what else parents should be aware of — and then we can explore some alternative ways to channel that energy.

What is Discord?

Discord is a communication platform for mobile or PC that was originally used by gamers who wanted to chat and hang out while playing video games in different physical locations. But it has expanded in recent years to include communities that convene around a range of topics. Users can communicate on Discord via voice, video, or text and it also facilitates doing group activities together, like playing video games, watching movies — or hacking teachers. 

Discord is organized by “servers,” which are created by users, some of which require an invite to get into and others of which are public. A server will be dedicated to a main topic and then will have “channels” underneath it for specific sub-conversations around that same topic. Anyone can set up a Discord server and decide the rules of that particular space. 

For kids and teens, Discord offers a place to do what kids and teens love to do best: Hang out with their friends. Because servers are created around interests, kids can hang out while they play Fortnite or talk with other kids about their latest interests, whatever that might be. Discord has become especially popular since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, allowing kids and teens to hang out without the possibility of exposure to the virus. Plus, it’s not as “mainstream” as other social networks and is likely outside of the view of their parents, who may be listening in on other platforms. 

How do I talk to my kids about online safety on Discord?

The minimum age to be on Discord is 13, but it’s definitely an all-ages platform. That means some servers are very adult and include not only adult conversations but sometimes pornographic imagery and other adults-only content. Those servers are required to have an age-restricted label, but teens and kids are often savvy enough to get around those types of restrictions, so it’s something to be aware of and speak with your kids about

But as a parent, the best move isn’t to tell your teen “Don’t go into these adult rooms! They’re not for you!” Psychotherapist and author Catherine Knibbs — who works with clients who have experienced trauma online — suggests asking kids questions that help promote critical thinking about what’s going on in different online spaces to help guide them to their own decision.

“Rather than saying ‘there are bad people out there online,’” Knibbs previously told Avast, “say something like, ‘Who are your friends online? How do you know they’re friends and not just someone you talk to? How do you know it’s a genuine person?’”

For parents who grew up with earlier iterations of the internet, AOL chatrooms might be a good comparison. While AOL only offered text communication (we just didn’t have the tech yet), there were different spaces designated for groups to talk about specific interests. Some of those spaces were totally PG, while others were more adult. And if you were a young person during the years of AOL, you might remember participating in age-appropriate chatrooms and also exploring ones that were definitely not for you. 

What should I do if I find out my kid is into hacking?

Despite the fact that it’s almost always portrayed negatively in common parlance and media, hacking per se isn’t about breaking the law. While some hackers are cybercriminals, others work in cybersecurity or for other legitimate tech companies with the goal of protecting them. 

“If your child shows an interest in hacking, encourage it, but also talk about issues of consent,” Avast Global Head of Security (and parent of two teens with black hoodies) Jeff Williams says. “Hacking by itself is not a bad thing – understanding how things work and don’t work deepens an understanding of the technology in question. It’s when that knowledge is used against another party that it becomes problematic.”

Williams says that there are some specific signs that your kid might be getting into hacking. He suggests being on the lookout for things like: 

  • They start using terms like dox and DDoS and bot.
  • They receive packages or start wearing new things you didn’t buy them and you are uncertain how they would have paid for the items.
  • Your parental control software suddenly stops working.
  • Massive bandwidth usage on the home network or cap exceeded on their phone.

If you’ve discovered that your kid is interested in hacking, you can redirect that interest away from “pranks” and criminal behavior and back toward more productive activities. 

The first step, like always, is communication. Talk to your kid about ethics and the importance of being a good digital citizen. Emphasize that actions taken online have effects that are just as real as in-person actions. Talk about how computer programming is a really cool (and potentially profitable) skill to have, but that great power comes with great responsibility.

You can even show them how other teens have made serious money via ethical hacking. For example, Argentine teen Santiago Lopez, 19, made more than $1 million by submitting almost 1,800 bugs to the bug bounty program HackerOne. He used his interest in hacking to help legitimate companies strengthen their security — and became a millionaire before he turned 20. 

On the flipside, WannaCry, infected 10,000 people per minute for four days before cybersecurity researcher Marcus Hutchins took it down. But while Hutchins was lauded as a hero in 2017, he was arrested in 2019 for malware that he wrote as a teenage hacker. Even as an adult – and even as a famous hacker who took down one of the fastest spreading malware to date – Hutchins had to make amends for his teenage actions. 

You can also help your kid learn how to program and hack for good. For older kids and teens, find a computer programming class in your community. Or look on Discord for servers aimed at computer programming and ethical hacking. For younger kids, hacking-specific STEM toys can be a fun way to get started. 

The digital world comes with its own unique opportunities — and potential dangers. But just like elsewhere in life, you, as the parent, have the tools to guide your kids and teens in the right direction. Have a chat about online communities, keep talking about digital citizenship, and point them toward more productive outlets. You’ve got this.