For many teenagers, the reading and writing platform is a creative and educational outlet. But a Forbes investigation found that it’s also a place where sexual predators target and exploit vulnerable teens, in some cases leading to sex trafficking and assault.
To the 94 million people that use it every month, storytelling platform Wattpad touts itself as a safe space for education and community on the internet, a nurturing place for self-publishing and reading creative writing produced by people as young as 9. But to Ella, a 16-year-old girl from South Carolina, it was the stalking ground of the predator who would exploit, rape and sexually traffic her — a 26-year-old man who masqueraded on Wattpad as “Hannah,” a teenage girl who Ella fell in love with and trusted during a time when she was bullied at school.
“This man promised to love — promised to love me in exchange for messages. Those messages turned to photos. Those photos turned to videos. And those videos turned into real life encounters with the men he chose,” said Ella in a witness testimony she gave for the Department of Justice, which prosecuted and convicted the four men who trafficked and abused Ella, including the one who originally contacted her on Wattpad. “He took these videos and pleased himself in the dark corners of his room, got off to the crying and yelling… This monster has a name and it’s not ‘Hannah.’”
Ella’s experience, detailed in testimony to the Department of Justice, is an extreme case of what can happen on Wattpad. But interviews with four other teens who were groomed on the platform when they were minors, along with moderators, parents, experts and Wattpad writers and readers, suggest Wattpad’s substandard precautions have made the platform a sandbox for sexual predators.
“Wattpad was obviously the stalking ground,” Derek Shoemake, assistant United States attorney at the Department of Justice, who was the lead prosecutor on the case, told Forbes. “Wattpad is like an unlocked door in a lot of ways.”
“This monster has a name and it’s not ‘Hannah.’”Ella
It was exactly that to Ella and her parents, middle school teachers fully aware of the dangers of the internet. “We had all of the security measures everyone tells you to have in place,” her mother said in testimony to the DOJ. “Parental controls, content filter blocks, and phone monitoring apps, but even with all of these measures in place, these predators still got to our daughter and our home. … they convinced her that they were the only ones who truly loved her and accepted her and cared for her.”
Wattpad presents itself as an educational and creative platform for users 13 and above. Hundreds of millions of stories have been uploaded to it since the company’s debut in 2006, and Wattpad claims that its vast global user base spends 23 billion minutes per month reading and discussing them. But substandard safety precautions, lack of age verification protocols, and an endless torrent of barely moderated sexually explicit material, rape fantasies and incest fiction have made it an appealing platform for sexual predators, who hide behind anonymous usernames while grooming and manipulating teens who spend long hours on the app. And this is no secret. Though Wattpad’s rules do not permit any sexual messages or solicitation, Twitter and Reddit are full of complaints about the predation and grooming that occur on it, and Forbes uncovered two other court cases, detailing the sexual assault of minors, which involve Wattpad. Ella is not alone in her experience — or her trauma.
“My life has been permanently changed,” Ella said in her testimony to the DOJ. “Years of therapy will be needed to even feel a shred of normalcy, but no amount of therapy or years of you-all in prison will make up for what you have done to me.”
In response to a detailed list of allegations and questions from Forbes, Wattpad spokesperson Lauren Hopkinson defended the company’s practices and policies. She wrote in an emailed statement, “At Wattpad, the safety and well-being of our users, employees and all those in our community is always our top priority – nothing can be more important.”
Wattpad declined to comment specifically on Ella’s case, but Hopkinson said, “In any instance where we become aware of illegal activity that concerns user safety, we notify law enforcement and fully cooperate in any investigations to the best of our abilities.”
Cofounded by Allen Lau and Ivan Yuen in 2006, Toronto-based Wattpad is hardly a household name, yet it is a raging success story among children and teenagers. It has even trended on TikTok, with excerpts having millions of views. It averages 94 million readers per month from across the world and boasts that some 560 million stories live on the platform. The company was backed by powerhouse venture groups including Khosla Ventures and Golden Venture Partners before being acquired by South Korean conglomerate Naver in 2021 for an estimated $600 million. (Naver did not respond to a comment request.)
Wattpad is successful for good reason. It’s become a go-to platform for young writers to hone their skills, self-publish books and stories, and discuss them with an audience of their peers — or sell them. Netflix hits like The Kissing Booth and Through My Window were both based on Wattpad books. Educators and researchers around the world have endorsed Wattpad for its role in the socialization of teens and as an informal channel for sex education for them. Wattpad claims that Disney, ViacomCBS, Sony, AT&T and many other global brands have partnered with it for promotional content.
(Netflix, ViacomCBS, Sony and AT&T did not respond to a request for comment by publication time. After Forbes reached out to Disney for comment, a brand page for the company formerly on Wattpad’s website was taken down.)
At first glance, Wattpad seems a benign platform that liberates and inspires young readers and writers alike. But it has been something else entirely to kids like Ella, who originally met the man who would later traffic her through a bondage-related “chat room” story. Wattpad has many of these so-called BDSM “chat rooms” that explicitly invite comments where people post their name, age, contact information and often what kind of kinks they’re into. One such story, which has separate “chapters” for “little girls” and “little boys,” has hundreds of comments. Wattpad took the page down after Forbes flagged it but did not comment further.
Wattpad is being used as an almost paint-by-numbers vector for grooming, with victimizers approaching young vulnerable users on the basis of common interests or their writing, through direct messages or the comment section of stories. Although Wattpad prides itself as being an “inclusive” and “positive” space for everyone, groomers on the platform appear to especially target teens who are exploring their sexuality or are part of the LGBTQ community, the DOJ’s Shoemake said. And widely available titles like “Pregnant By My Brother” (96.2K views), “My ‘Rape’ Story” (42.1K views) and “F***ing My Stepbrother” (432K views) make it easy for them to quickly steer conversations in dangerous directions. After Forbes flagged these stories to Wattpad, the company took them down.
“13 plus kids are like clay. You can mold them in any way,” says 26-year-old Sukhman Gill, who began writing on Wattpad seven years ago and has now published 14 books, her most popular of which has 4.9 million views. “Wattpad has a big duty, power and influence in this society, but it’s underrated.”
Chris McKenna, founder of Protect Young Eyes, an online child safety advocacy group, was more pointed in his assessment. “It’s the Wild West,” he told Forbes. “Wattpad is failing on multiple levels.”
In December 2021, Lily from Michigan began using Wattpad months after she got a phone for her 11th birthday. Lily, who was often bullied at school, turned to Wattpad to channel her creativity and emotions. At first, her parents Angela and Eric saw Wattpad as a safe outlet for their daughter to share her writing while improving her vocabulary and comprehension skills.
“We thought it would maybe even fill in some of the pieces that the school misses,” Angela told Forbes.
Then the direct messaging started. After Lily published a few stories to the platform, she started exchanging messages with “Wolfsblut,” who claimed to be a 13-year-old girl from Germany. At first the conversation largely concerned the stories Lily wrote. But over the course of six months, they shifted in tone as Lily began sharing more personal information about being teased at school. “Wolfsblut” had become a confidante. One day, Lily shared that she had been sad after being bullied. “Well, if I was there, I would snuggle you and make you feel better. Would you like that,” Wolfsbut asked.
Lily’s parents sensed that something was wrong, but they weren’t quite sure what. “I noticed my daughter’s behavior starting to change,” her mother Angela told Forbes. “She was getting very secretive with her phone.”
“Wattpad is scary because it’s flown under the radar of so many people. I think it’s got to be part of a national conversation.”Lily’s mother, Angela
Soon “Wolfsblut” began asking Lily for more personal information — and pictures. They asked things like, “Who knows that we talk? How many times do you go to the library? What time do you go to the library? How far away do you live from the library and things of that nature,” Angela said. “We took her phone and cut off the communication at that point.”
Social media is brimming with stories like Lily’s.
“Currently thinking about the 22-year-old man that groomed me on Wattpad when I was 13. He told me he was 16 and I didn’t find out he was 22 until after the fact so,” one person wrote on Twitter.
“When I was 11-13 and on Wattpad, I was groomed by people as young as 15,” another wrote.
“I was around 12 or 13 and was definitely groomed through Wattpad’s message system,” one tweeted.
And then there are the comments of parents, many of whom weren’t even aware of the platform, let alone its dangers. “It was completely under my radar,” Lily’s mother Angela told Forbes. “I thought it was safe because, you know, it wasn’t TikTok. Wattpad is scary because it’s flown under the radar of so many people. I think it’s got to be part of a national conversation.”
Other parents have posted their concerns online. “My (14 year old) daughter was befriended by someone on this site when they both commented on a story,” one parent wrote in their review of Wattpad on Common Sense Media, a research advocacy group that provides ratings and reviews of sites based on their suitability for children. “The communication escalated to many many messages every day. Fortunately, I became aware of the situation at an early stage. The Federal Police confirmed that it was a grooming scenario.”
Said another, “Someone emailed my daughter off this site and started messaging with her on google hangouts. This went on for months! They kept trying to get her to give the Itunes cards and take ‘sexy pictures’ of herself.”
Hopkinson said Wattpad removes accounts that show evidence of unwanted messaging and is currently implementing technology to scan messages on Wattpad. She did not answer follow up questions about this tool.
Hopkinson also noted that users can use what she called a “three-click” process to report misconduct. The minor victims Forbes spoke to said they did not use this feature, sometimes because they did not realize they were being groomed and sometimes because they did know how to navigate Wattpad’s reporting system.
In 2015, Wattpad launched an app called After Dark, into which the platform funneled its sexually explicit content to serve those 17 and older. The app, launched on the heels of spiking interest in erotica after Fifty Shades of Grey was released, hosted steamy romance novels categorized and curated from the main website. But in 2018, in an effort to give its readers what they were most interested in, Wattpad shuttered the app and brought the mature content back to its main platform. Since then, stories about hardcore sexual encounters, self harm, abuse and violence have lived side by side with Harry Potter fan fiction and adventure stories of warrior cats, with a writer-appended “Mature” tag as the only thing separating them — and often not even that.
Because Wattpad allows young writers to comment on stories, follow their favorite authors and direct message others, it also serves as a social network. This makes it easier for children who come looking for feedback and exposure to be inadvertently exposed to groomers, said Jeff Haynes, senior editor at Common Sense Media. “Anytime you create a piece of literature and post it to your account, anybody can direct message you,” he told Forbes. “They can use that as a way to get their foot in the door to groom or exploit you.”
Wattpad’s pursuit of higher revenue has further opened the door to this kind of predation. Haynes told Forbes that the site was originally more of a writing community and less of a social media site. But he says that as the site expanded and began monetizing through ad revenue, it didn’t put guardrails in place to support and protect its growing number of users — and that’s been reflected in the stories on Wattpad. “Over the years, the content has shifted in an extreme way towards the more lewd of nature,” Haynes said.
Last revised three years ago, Wattpad’s content guidelines forbid pornographic content, glorification of sexual violence or any illegal sex acts, including incest, necrophilia or child sexual exploitation. In particular, they ban any relationships between characters that are nonconsensual, citing the age of consent as 16+ and stating that “any sexual content between characters must abide by this age of consent and not be in violation of Canadian Law.”
“Over the years, the content has shifted in an extreme way towards the more lewd of nature.”Jeff Haynes, senior editor Common Sense Media
When Forbes inquired about how it moderates content on its platform, Wattpad spokesperson Hopkinson responded: “When it comes to content violations, our process and philosophy is simple: We don’t debate violations, we delete them from the platform.”
Yet the site is riddled with material that violates these rules. A search for “rape” yielded 152,300 results on Wattpad, including many accounts of sexual assault. A search for “incest” returned 729,000 results. Many of the books Wattpad hosts not only detail nonconsensual sex, but romanticize grooming, rape, pedophilia, self-harm and even eating disorders. A Forbes review found dozens of stories that appear to violate the company’s rules. In one particularly egregious story, the protagonist talks about being repeatedly raped by her brother, starting when she was 9 years old.
Hopkinson acknowledged that Wattpad faces challenges with content moderation and noted that the company will be “reviewing our tag moderation process going forward to provide stronger limits on how sensitive tags can circulate or present search results.”
Child welfare advocates say sexually explicit stories like these often open the door to sexual messages, which Wattpad also bans. And they’ve directly played a role in at least two sexual assault cases.
In 2014, a man from Arkansas was convicted of sexually assaulting his two minor stepdaughters. U.S. district court filings say that the man, who tried to take naked pictures of his stepdaughter, wrote and posted multiple pornographic stories on Wattpad, where the protagonist fantasizes about sexual activities with her stepfather. He then sent these stories to his minor stepdaughter’s account on Wattpad.
“The story was about a teenage girl named ‘Susan’ who had a secret desire to explore her sexuality without forming an emotional attachment… E. B. (the minor) explained to the jury that her middle name is Susan, and that the ‘Susan’ in the story participated in the same school activities she was involved in. E. B. described the story as ‘disgusting,’” court documents read.
In another case from this past February, a U.K. school teacher was reportedly accused of sexually assaulting a teenage girl with whom he is alleged to have co-authored a number of sexually explicit stories published to Wattpad. The man has reportedly denied the charges and the case is still ongoing.
Wattpad declined to comment on either case.
For a storytelling platform that has publicly touted itself as a “safe space for anyone to tell their story,” experts believe Wattpad has done a poor job of implementing age verification measures and other precautions that prevent kids from reading highly sexualized content and discussing it publicly and privately.
While speaking with Forbes, McKenna, the founder of Protect Young Eyes, created an account with his age as 14 and searched for the word “rape” on Wattpad. Immediately, the site’s algorithm, which curates stories on the basis of search history, flooded his account’s personalized dashboard with suggestions for other stories of rape and sexual violence.
Forbes interviews with minors found that it wasn’t uncommon for kids under 13 to lie about their age when they create an account. “There’s very minimal age verification, which really is the golden ticket in online child protection,” McKenna says.
Wattpad’s Hopkinson said that the company ensures “mature content is not available to any readers under the age of 17 who have appropriately registered their age,” but did not explain how Wattpad verifies users’ age or how it prevents access to mature content when users can readily lie. Hopkinson said Wattpad is “in the process of reviewing age verification technologies.”
Kids being dishonest to bypass age restrictions on platforms like Wattpad is a difficult thing to police. Even Facebook’s age verification precautions that include using AI to detect underage accounts can be easily gamed. And the grooming of minors by sexual predators is a problem shared across social media. Wattpad rival Archive Of One’s Own (often abbreviated to AO3), another fan fiction-focused reading platform, has faced similar problems.
“It’s very tricky to control who’s reading your content once it’s out,” said Wattpad writer Ariana Godoy, a middle school teacher in New York who has been posting her writing on Wattpad since 2009 and whose book Through My Window is now a Netflix movie. “Even after putting a ‘Mature’ label on the story, kids who are underage can easily say they are above 18 and get access to those scenes.”
“There’s very minimal age verification, which really is the golden ticket in online child protection.”Chris McKenna, founder of Protect Young Eyes
But beyond age verification challenges, Wattpad’s rules are also contradictory and confusing. While it bans pornographic content and glorification of sexual violence, the platform’s content guidelines also say that a story with a “Mature” rating can include explicit sex scenes and “graphic depictions of violence; including but not limited to: sexual, verbal, emotional and physical abuse.”
And enforcement of those rules is lax, at best. The company largely relies on a cohort of some 700 unpaid volunteers who’ve agreed to handle moderation duties, according to Kevina Oyetador, a volunteer moderator who spoke with Forbes. It’s a sisyphean task. “The moderators are basically swimming against the current that they’re never really going to be able to stem,” Common Sense’s Haynes said.
Oyetador says she browses through Wattpad in her spare time or at night after her part-time job as a sales representative. “We get rid of any kind of nudity or those age gap stories where it gets sort of borderline creepy because there are many impressionable readers,” said Oyetador, who is also a Wattpad writer.
Oyatedor, who has browsed through thousands of stories on Wattpad, says that she’s found a lot of accounts that skirt the rules — she estimates one in three books violate them entirely. “When I first started moderating, there were times like I had to close my laptop when I see things. I was like, ‘How is this allowed on this?,’” she told Forbes.
Wattpad spokesperson Hopkinson said that the company uses technology combined with a team of paid and volunteer human moderators to “address thousands of content and user reports every week.” She said Wattpad invests “millions into community safety every year,” but did not respond to questions about how many paid moderators Wattpad employs.
“There are a lot of dangers lurking behind seemingly innocent invitations — like share your story.”Leah Plunkett, faculty at Harvard Law School
Wattpad has taken action when its platform struggled with harmful content and unsafe spaces in the past. In August 2020, a month before the first complaint in Ella’s DOJ case was filed, the company took down a feature called Wattpad Community Forum. “While this has been a useful space for many, we cannot ignore that many members of our community don’t always feel safe or welcomed in the Forums,” reads a company post that explained the rationale for ending the group chat feature. “We acknowledge that our team has not provided the moderation needed to properly support the Forums.”
While Wattpad does offer a “Safety Portal” on its website with a way to report inappropriate behavior, it is largely comprised of rudimentary online safety disclaimers that put the onus of policing on children and parents. “If you do read stories with sexual content, remember that what you’re reading is fiction and doesn’t necessarily reflect reality,” the company’s Youth Portal explains. “Don’t pressure a partner to do anything you’ve read about if they don’t want to, and don’t feel like you have to try anything you don’t want to.”
According to Leah Plunkett, an expert on digital privacy at Harvard Law School, Wattpad doesn’t offer adequate protection for its young users, who create and consume the content that has made the company so successful.
“The core premise of the platform is to spill your soul. And often what we choose to say as fiction is a deep revealing reflection of some of our inner workings,” Plunkett says. “There are a lot of dangers lurking behind seemingly innocent invitations — like share your story.”
When Julia was 9 years old, she turned to Wattpad to escape from an abusive situation at home. She had been publishing fan fiction about a famous YouTuber when a message popped in her inbox from a stranger, who complimented her writing.
The two began talking regularly on Wattpad, and over the ensuing months developed a friendship. “We became friends, at least in my mind,” Julia told Forbes. “They were emotionally supporting me.”
But what began as a virtual friendship soon became something else. Julia’s groomer started encouraging her to distance herself from family and friends. It worked; he isolated her. Julia told Forbes she stopped talking to anyone else.
“He kept asking private information from me,” Julia told Forbes. “He asked for sexual favors and made sexual jokes that would fly over my head. He would ask me to touch myself and tell him how it felt.”
When Julia tried to end their conversation, the groomer threatened to kill himself.
Julia, who is now 16, says she didn’t agree to any of the groomer’s demands and soon deactivated her Wattpad account. But she says the incident is largely responsible for the anxiety, depression, trust and relationship issues from which she now suffers.
“I just want people to know that it’s hard knowing when you’re getting groomed by someone,” she told Forbes. “Even if you’re super secure about everything and you keep a distance from people. It can still happen. And it sucks. And it ruins your life. And it takes so long to heal.”
But Julia still believes in Wattpad’s core promise: connecting writers and readers. “The platform itself as a concept is great but it’s so easy to find those people who make the platform bad, “ she said. “I wish they had more regulations.”
Alexandra Levine and Katharine Schwab contributed reporting.
By Rashi Shrivastava, Forbes Staff
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