By Aidan McNamee | Contributor
Online safety for kids is not a new concern, having been an issue since the early days of the internet. Even twenty years ago, satirical news show BrassEye mocked hysteria surrounding online paedophilia. But, as online socialisation has become more sophisticated, so too have the harms facing children become more complex. The metaverse, and its potential to blur the lines between the real and the virtual makes these threats far more potent. Andy Burrows, from the NSPCC, claims that these games are “dangerous by design”. As a result, parents are wondering now more than ever, are their children safe online?
A recent investigation by the BBC uncovered disturbing evidence in VRchat, a popular platform that allows users to don different avatars and socialise in virtual reality. Posing as a 13 year old girl, a researcher reported “grooming, sexual material, racist insults and a rape threat” as well as numerous instances of virtual “strip clubs” and erotic roleplay. VRchat allows anyone over the age of 13 full access to their platform, and with a lack of proper age verification even younger children can easily gain access too.
But the problem of children being exposed to mature content is hardly a metaverse phenomenon. Paedophiles are “often among the first to arrive” to online spaces that attract children, according to Sarah Gardner from Thorn, a tech non-profit that focuses on online sexual abuse. When virtual reality was still a silicon valley pipe dream, kid-friendly MMO Habbo Hotel was rocked by a paedophilia scandal, resulting in the site’s temporary closure. Moshi Monsters and Club Penguin had similar incidents, with paedophiles luring kids to external platforms.
With this in mind, it’s difficult to view the metaverse as some new, nefarious threat. Instead, it is just the latest incarnation of a battle that has been fought for years, and the solution remains unchanged; better moderation and parental supervision. Moderation is undoubtedly more challenging in the VR space than it has been previously. However, if tech companies wish to promote and profit from these platforms, then they should be capable of implementing stricter age controls and moderation to keep kids away from adult content, and to keep illegal content off the site completely. And for parents, keeping up with what kids are up to online is absolutely vital. 93% of UK children regularly play video games, and lockdown has left them more savvy and engaged with online social spaces than ever before. Parents that don’t keep their finger on the pulse of their child’s online activity risk exposing them to inappropriate, and sometimes predatory content.
For now, the metaverse should be treated as what it is; a new frontier in online communication and something of a wild west. If it is truly the future of how we work and socialise, then tech firms need to step up and implement proper safeguarding. Until then, keep the kids away from the headset.