Metaverse exposes children to new risks online, warns charity

Paedophiles are using headsets to view and store child abuse images.

The NSPCC has warned that the growing use of virtual reality headsets to explore the Metaverse will expose children to new risks online.

Paedophiles are using headsets to view and store child abuse images, police data showed for the first time, according to the charity.

The data was collected by the NSPCC through sending Freedom of Information request to all 45 forces in the UK about child abuse image offence figures.

It was discovered forces had recorded eight offences involving headsets and VR. However, the figures are small compared to the amount found on social media and gaming sites, which was recorded as 9,888 offences. But experts worry the risks of VR will increase as they become more popular.

Sir Peter Wanless, the NSPCC’s chief executive, told the BBC: “We hear from young people who feel powerless and let down as sexual abuse risks becoming normalised.”

The Metaverse – which won’t officially arrive for a while; a soft launch is expected within next five years – is a shared, online 3D space where users can interact with each other and with computer-generated avatars to connect with friends, play games, work and shop.

The government says that VR headsets and the Metaverse will fall within the scope of the Online Safety Bill, which is currently being debated in parliament.

Under the proposed new law, tech companies which fail to protect children from harm online will face huge fines and executives could face time in jail.

From its inception, VR has been used by the adult entertainment industry. Campaigners said it would only be a matter of time before the technology was used to groom and sexually exploit children and share illegal content.

The BBC first reported in 2017 that VR headsets were being used to sexually exploit children. It uncovered that a man based in Egypt was advertising child abuse images and videos for sale online.

And last year, the BBC reported that a Metaverse app allowed children to enter strip clubs.

The NSPCC is calling on the government to create a statutory child safety advocate through the Online Safety Bill. This, the charity says, would put children’s experiences at the front and centre of decision making, building safeguarding into regulation and prioritising child protection.

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