Wattpad — Where Children Read Porn

In the past, I had been an administrator and moderator for different writing sites. These sites had always been small but relatively close communities who enjoyed writing and sharing creativity on what was then largely forum-based, text-based affairs. As time passed, so did these writing sites. However, I felt the urge to share my writing again during November of last year, after a reasonably long hiatus. With that in mind, I decided to try Wattpad, a creative writing platform that was developed in 2006.

According to its own promotional material, Wattpad is estimated to have a readership of 45 million users. There are a wide variety of genres on offer — ranging from non-fiction to subcategories of fiction such as sci-fi, mystery and action. Although they were not my cup of tea, there are also several nods towards the younger readers with categories such as ‘vampire’, ‘werewolf’ and fan fiction of the One Direction variety.

I have always found that two constants are required for any writing group to function, regardless of the slickness of their presentation. It is my opinion that the robustness of these constants — the Terms of Service (TOS) and Conduct Guidelines (CG) are important to maintain the transparency of the site’s interactions, as well as to maintain its longevity by providing a safe environment for its users to explore. My first review of Wattpad yielded that it does have a TOS, as well as a CG. Although some of the wording seemed dubious. the intent of both documents seemed to be reasonable. As such, I began posting my writing on the site and managed to become part of a lively, but positive poetry community on the site.

Wattpad has two age ratings for content — these are ‘Everyone’ (for ages 13-years and up) and ‘Mature’ (for 17-years and older). They also has a name for forbidden material from the website, which is the ‘Prohibited’ category — this covers among other things, explicit pornography and copyright infringements. At first, the distinction between Everyone and Mature seemed to work and I began posting my work under both, with the belief that access to my adult writing (e.g. sensual poetry) had been restricted from children in the Everyone category. As it turned out, I was wrong.

During January of this year, I became curious as to how Wattpad, as a company, manages the concepts of sex, sexuality and sexualisation. After all, the Content Guideline essentially represents the moral guideline of the site — Wattpad’s vision of what is permissible and age appropriate. My investigation into Wattpad’s content, however, indicated that Wattpad’s users view sexual content quite differently from the Content Guidelines. Let us consider one example:

Actual book with explicit content. Found as ‘Everybody ‘ content in a category which is popular with young readers.

The disparity between Wattpad’s CG and how the platform is actually used presents as being problematic to the Wattpad staff, in terms of content management. Feedback from the site ambassadors indicated that they struggle to keep up with the need to re-categorize works, often citing the huge volume of content relative to their small staff numbers. There was also evidence of poor enforcement timeframes and poor screening of Prohibited material. Above all, I was disturbed by Wattpad’s lack of guidelines or support regarding healthy and age appropriate sexual expression, especially for its young users. I attempted to address this issue in book, initially within Wattpad itself, in my book ‘Wattsex?’. The Medium equivalent of this is as per the link below.

But what does this have to do with the title of this article? What is the link between Wattpad and porn? In the course of my investigation, I discovered a horrific fact — Wattpad’s CG gives the impression that its staff successfully moderates its content. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Wattpad is in fact rife with its so-called Prohibited material a.k.a. porn.

So, how much Prohibited material is there on Wattpad? I can only guess, because, of course, it shouldn’t technically exist. Fellow writers have informed me it is a large percentage, particularly in the popular genres of Romance and Fanfiction. My own anecdotal experiences have included my discovery of porn that was centered around underage actors, incest-themed ‘Daddy’ stories and stories about rape (or as Wattpad softens it ‘non-consensual sex’). One book just asked specifically for hook ups, in the Everyone category. I found one profile where a man specifically asked every young girl that responded to his book to PM him. There were numerous books in the Everyone section where the writers specifically asked readers not to report them for their explicit content. When I said that Wattpad should support teenagers to develop a healthy sexual understanding, this was not what I had in mind. I reported many of my findings to Wattpad, particularly the underage porn fantasies. Wattpad only acted on 2 of these instances.

Alarmingly, once I began discovering the Prohibited material on Wattpad, the platform’s own algorithms began posting pornographic recommendations to my home page. Here is one example:

It should be noted that Wattpad’s CG actually classifies sexual slavery as Prohibited material. Yet, here it was, pushed onto my home page with the title, ‘ Pedophile’.

Wattpad’s recommendations also brought me to home pages such as the one below. Please note that the original image did not have the black bar:

Evidence pointed to the fact that this user, her book and the abovementioned picture have been in circulation since 2014. I am not the only person who had noticed this, as someone had commented quite kindly:

The commentator sounded somewhat bemused, but it is notable that the profile has 27 followers. But who are these followers? One of them is 14-years old. Another is 15-years old. A third claims to be “always horny” and willing to ‘help’ others to ‘experiment’. The profile in the above photo also posted external links for sexting, which is a further concern:

This combination of factors raised my hackles. This page had existed unchecked since 2014. In the end, it took 3 formal reports and frequent lobbying on my part to 3 site ambassadors to remove the said content. It took 27 days for them to do this, even when I highlighted the risk to the underage followers of the user.

Prohibited material such as this can easily be discovered throughout Wattpad via tags such as #oneshots, #dirtyimagines. If you should have a Wattpad account and wish to try searching for these tags, be warned, as Wattpad will begin to start spewing these recommendations all over your homepage, based on your search history.

It is, of course, easy to argue that these are examples of users who are either subverting the Content Guidelines or violating their Terms of Service. However, I found another nasty truth — Wattpad does not prevent its under-17 users from accessing its Mature works. Here is an example of a user’s account (on CommonSenseMedia.com) to access prohibited material — at 11-years of age, no less:

So how did this situation occur? For a start, the sign-up process for 13 to 16-year olds (and apparently 11-year olds) is identical to that for over 17-year olds. Although Wattpad says that parental permission is required, there are no prompts regarding this during the sign-up process. Create your username, confirm your email and you are good to go.

In any case, imagine yourself as a 13-year old with a brand new WP account. You begin searching for books. Yes, Wattpad’s search engine restricts you from viewing mature books in the results. Well done. However, what did that 11-year old say again?

“Some stories include curse words, sex, kinkiness, sexuality, drinking, and pretty much everything in that genre, but you should be able to tell of something like that based on 1. information from the title and 2. information from the book’s summary.”

How did this 11-year old access this material? The truth is, there is a glaring loophole that allows under-17 year to access and open any Mature book. The 13-year old, for example, was able to read this book:

As the first lines of the book shows, the female protagonist begins by saying no to sex. Here is a spoiler, the male character penetrates her anyway — without the slightest whisper of consent. So how did this happen? How would a 13-year old access such a rape scene? Did the child lie about her age? No. Was hacking involved? No. Is it part of a normal Wattpad user’s navigation around the site? Yes.

This​ chapter alone had generated 11,000 views. With Wattpad’s demographics the way that it is, what percentage of that is likely to be below the 17-year threshold? Should rape fantasy like this exist at all on a 'family' site?

The truth is, Wattpad will allow any child to open any Mature book. Its architecture has no restrictions whatsoever, apart from the search results. This really troubles me for several reasons. The first is for potential for abuse or exposure to explicit material. Consider the scenario below:

An author may have two fanfiction books about One Direction. Both are rated correctly. The first book has Everybody access and is popular with teens. The second book is Mature and focuses on sex scenes with a band member. The author thinks that the second book is safe from underage eyes. In fact, anyone can open that book. Even worse, every adolescent who was drawn to the Everyone book and enjoyed it will very likely click on the Mature book and read it, thinking it is another fun book about One Direction. So who is responsible for the child being exposed to explicit material? Wattpad is.

The second issue that bothers me is — why do we have WP staff labouring to reclassify books left, right and centre? It seems to be a waste of effort for the toiling staff. In terms of safety, there is no difference between Everyone and Mature. The CG is a smokescreen when Wattpad’s framework does not support any content restrictions whatsoever. There are so many ways to find your way to Mature books apart from the search engine. As far as I can tell, this includes, but is not restricted to the following:
1. Links from within Wattpad, either via conversations or noticeboards.
2. Seeing what other users are voting or posting in the news feed.
3. Browsing an author’s books.
4. Using external links from external search engines such as Google.

In truth, I debated with myself whether I should have exposed this loophole. But then I realised that it is not a single loophole, but Wattpad is actually a Swiss cheese that is full of them. Children are more likely to fall into any of the site navigation pathways that I described above without even realising it than by reading about it in this book. I brought up the issue regarding the loophole with Wattpad. This was their response:

I have since spoken with Ivan Yuen briefly and a member of their Trust & Security Team, who informed me that:

“ You raise really important points about our shortcomings in these areas. I am not at liberty to share internal details about why these issues exist, but I do want you to know that your feedback has been presented to the right people, and that we are in the process of working towards better community safety features.”

From my perspective, the site has been around since 2006. That is plenty of time to have worked out the ‘better community safety features’. The abovementioned discussion took place in February of this year. 13-year olds can still access Mature content, not to mention the Prohibited content on Wattpad today. Kids reading porn, loosely disguised as fanfiction or romance.

I have since removed all my creative content from Wattpad, despite the friendships I had developed there and the relative success that I had achieved with my books. I was unhappy with the fact that I may have inadvertently exposed children to my own mature writing, when I thought their access had been restricted. I felt that this was a break in my confidence in how Wattpad’s framework is supposed to work. Lastly, I will not support a site that claims to be child friendly, yet knowingly has an open door for others to exploit their young readers.

Every parent that allows their children access Wattpad needs to consider their safety when they access, what is essentially a cursorily moderated site. The example that I gave above regarding the ‘One Direction’ author was following the rules. Now imagine if the writer was a sexual predator.

Wattpad may have begun with good intentions, but their haste to expand and monetise itself had, in my opinion, left the most important thing behind — the safety of its largest user base. Wattpad prides itself on its ability to get young people to read. It markets itself down to 13-year olds. What it doesn’t mention is that the same young people are likely to read unmoderated material, that will include misogynistic, incest-themed porn and rape fantasies.

Find another place for your children to read. Wattpad is exactly what its programmers had designed it to be, a place where children can read porn.