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VR putting children at risk of abuse, say NSPCC | #childsafety | #kids | #chldern | #parents | #schoolsafey

A report co-authored by a Bristol academic is calling for better regulation of the metaverse

Verity McIntosh says she found the research “harrowing”

Author: James DiamondPublished 1 hour ago
Last updated 1 hour ago

A new report, co-authored by an academic from the University of the West of England (UWE) says new virtual reality games are putting children at risk of child sex abuse and exploitation.

It comes with the House of Lords set to debate the Online Safety Bill, and calls on politicians to do more to protect children in the online world.

the report was commissioned by children’s charity the NSPCC and co-authored by Verity McIntosh, a senior lecturer in virtual and extended realities at UWE and Catherine Allen from Limina Immersive.

Verity said: “Immersive technologies have extraordinary potential to positively impact society; offering more embodied ways to connect to one another at distance, unlocking creative potential, exploring new forms of identity and society, and enabling us to tackle global problems as digitally empowered citizens.

“Unfortunately, the first steps taken with this new suite of tools appear to have been taken without due consideration for the care and safety of children.”

Key findings from the research include:

  • VR multiuser spaces provide opportunities for offenders to commit child sexual abuse and exploitation against a child
  • ‘Phantom touch’ can mean that victims of VR sexual abuse experience the physical sensation of being touched without their consent
  • Offenders are using simulated child sexual abuse games on the dark web and through private networks that “mirror” the way they would abuse children offline

“I’ve worked in virtual reality and immersive technology for the best part of 10 years now and I did find it personally quite harrowing and quite upsetting to be working on this kind of material,” Verity said.

“I’m a parent myself and I think I hadn’t realised quite how current some of these risks are to young people, particularly young children engaging with these tools and how few protections there were in place to support them to have a positive experience.”

Advice for Parents

Verity says it is easy for parents to assume that because a game appears cartoony and designed for kids it must be safe, but sadly that is not always the case.

“At a glance parents can look at these tools and imagine they’re quite child friendly…and they don’t necessarily themselves know what our children are engaging with.

“Even simple things like knowing headsets are generally connected to the internet and children can quite easily access these multi person spaces where lots of strangers may be in a room that they are not themselves supervising.

“So just the understanding that something you wouldn’t encourage your child to do in real life is possible to do in the metaverse, that is an important thing to try and figure out.”

Calls for government action

The report goes on to recommend several changes that should be made by the government, regulators and technology companies to ensure children are better protected including:

  • Technology companies must make sure immersive environments are safe for children by design. They must include strong child-safety features and reporting systems
  • Ofcom should work closely with other UK regulatory bodies to develop clear guidance on how VR technology platforms must assess and respond to the risks to child safety on their products
  • The government must provide more guidance, funding and learning opportunities to law enforcement on how to deal with VR and simulated offences
  • The government must review the Online Safety Bill on a rolling basis to ensure that emerging harms are adequately covered under the law

We have contacted the government for a comment.

You can read the full report here.

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