A BBC investigation has revealed that virtual reality apps that can be used to play in the so-called Metaverse can be dangerous for children. warn the experts.
Some applications of the so-called Metaverse could be dangerous for children. This is the result of an investigation by the BBC. A journalist posing as a 13-year-old girl observed, among other things, grooming (adults making targeted contact with minors with the intention of abusing, editor’s note), saw sexual images, witnessed racial slurs and a threat of rape in the virtual reality world.
The BBC reporter visited virtual reality rooms where avatars simulated sex through an app rated for at least 13 years. She was shown sex toys and condoms and approached by many adult men.
Metaverse: Zuckerberg thinks this is the future
The metaverse means games and experiences accessible using virtual reality headsets. The technology, so far limited to games, could be used in many other areas in the future – from work to concerts and cinema. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg thinks this could be the future of the internet – so much so that he recently renamed Facebook to Meta and the company has invested billions in developing its Oculus Quest headsets.
This is the headset the BBC reporter used to explore an app and part of the Metaverse. The application called “VRChat” is an online virtual platform that users can explore with 3D avatars. Although it is not developed by Facebook, it can be easily downloaded to Facebook’s “Meta Quest” headset via app stores without requiring age verification. The only requirement is to have a Facebook account.
Child protection in the metaverse: experts warn
A man approached the reporter and told him that avatars “can take their clothes off and do unspeakable things.” Others would have spoken of “erotic role-playing games”. According to BBC News research, the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) has said there is an urgent need to work on safety in the metaverse.
Andy Burrows, head of child online safety policy at the NSPCC, told the BBC the findings of the investigation were “amazing”. “These are children exposed to totally inappropriate, really incredibly harmful experiences,” he said. According to him, technology companies have learned little from the mistakes of the first generation of social media.
“It is a product that is dangerous because of forgetfulness and negligence. We see products being put on the market without even the slightest consideration of safety”, continues the expert. Meta, on the other hand, said it might have tools for players to block other users. The company is working to improve safety “while learning how people interact in these spaces.”
Children felt compelled to engage in sexual activity
BBC News also spoke to a security campaigner who spent months researching VRChat and is now posting his videos on YouTube. He prefers to remain anonymous because he is concerned for the safety of his family.
He reported conversations with children who say they were approached on the platform by so-called groomers and forced into virtual sex. They should have actually recreated the sexual movements.
More of an adult playground
“I was surprised at how immersed you are in the virtual world,” the reporter explained in the report. “I felt like a kid again. Then when grown men asked me why I wasn’t in school and wanted to encourage me to engage in VR sex, it was all the more disturbing,” she continued.
“VRChat” definitely looked more like a playground for adults than for children. Most of the rooms are decorated in neon pink colors, similar to Amsterdam’s red light district. Sex toys were on display there. “Everything in the room is disturbing. In large groups, people on the floor are simulating sexual acts and talking to each other like children playing at being adult couples,” reports the journalist. The only option is either to participate, which he has often been asked to do, or to go to another room where similar things are happening.
Metavers and protection of minors: “No moderation”
Catherine Allen runs consultancy Limina Immersive and is currently writing a report on virtual reality for the Institute of Engineering and Technology. She says her research team found many of her VR experiences to be “fun and surreal”, but others to be “quite traumatic and disturbing”. She described an incident on a Meta-powered app where she met a seven-year-old girl.
A group of men surrounded them and joked that they had raped them. Allen said she had to stand between the men and the child to protect her. “I wish I didn’t have to, but that’s because there’s no moderation,” the researcher told the BBC.
Meta responds to search
Meta also responded quickly to BBC searches. Bill Stillwell, Product Manager for VR Integrity at Meta, said in a statement, “We want everyone who uses our products to have a good experience and easily find the tools that can help in situations like this so that we can investigate and be able to take action.” The company will continue to make improvements as it learns more about how people interact in these areas.
Parents should check their children’s apps
However, the organizations are advising parents to check which apps their children are downloading to VR headsets and, if possible, try them out themselves to assess whether they are suitable. Many apps also allow their experience to be streamed to a phone or laptop at the same time, allowing parents to watch what their child is playing.