Paedophiles are exploiting virtual reality environments like the metaverse to abuse children, an NSPCC investigation has revealed for the first time.
Data shows that UK police forces have recorded eight examples where virtual reality (VR) spaces were used for child sexual abuse image crimes.
The Facebook founder has been a leading voice on the concept, which is seen as the future of the internet and would blur the lines between the physical and digital.
West Midlands police recorded five instances of metaverse abuse and Warwickshire one, while Surrey police recorded two crimes — including one that involved Meta’s Oculus headset, which is now called the Quest.
Disturbing: Paedophiles are exploiting virtual reality environments like the metaverse to abuse children, an NSPCC investigation has revealed (stock image)
Investigation: West Midlands police recorded five instances of metaverse abuse and Warwickshire one, while Surrey police recorded two crimes — including one that involved Meta’s Oculus headset (pictured on Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg), which is now called the Quest
Part of the problem with the metaverse and other VR environments is that users interact with others as an avatar, so they never know the true identity of who they are speaking to.
What is the metaverse?
The ‘metaverse’ is a set of virtual spaces where you can game, work and communicate with others who aren’t in the same physical space as you.
Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg has been a leading voice on the concept, which is seen as the future of the internet and would blur the lines between the physical and digital.
‘You’ll be able to hang out with friends, work, play, learn, shop, create and more,’ Meta has said.
‘It’s not necessarily about spending more time online — it’s about making the time you do spend online more meaningful.’
While Meta is leading the charge with the metaverse, it explained that it isn’t a single product one company can build.
‘And it won’t be built overnight. Many of these products will only be fully realized in the next 10-15 years.’
A report released last year by the Institution of Engineering and Technology warned that unsupervised children were therefore interacting with adults in openly accessed VR spaces, including Altspace, VRChat and Meta’s Horizon Venues.
NSPCC data reveals that although VR spaces are being used to carry out child sexual abuse, it is Snapchat that is the social media platform of choice for paedophiles.
In 2021/22, the app – which is popular with teenagers – was used in 4,293 child abuse image offences, which is 43 per cent of all instances in which a platform was mentioned by police.
Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, which are all owned by Meta, were used in a 33 per cent of instances where a site was flagged.
The NSPCC investigation showed that child abuse image offences recorded by UK police had surged by two thirds in five years.
More than 30,000 crimes involving the sharing and possession of indecent images of children took place in 2021/22, according to a freedom of information request sent to all 43 police forces in England and Wales.
Unregulated social media is fuelling this ‘unprecedented scale’ of online child sexual abuse, the children’s charity has warned, as it renewed its call for Meta to scrap plans to introduce default end-to-end encryption of Facebook and Instagram messenger services.
The NSPCC said this would make it impossible to identify grooming and the sharing of images.
It also called on the UK Government to create a statutory child safety advocate through the Online Safety Bill to prioritise the issue of child sexual abuse image crimes being carried out on social media.
The legislation is currently in the House of Lords.
The NSPCC said a statutory child safety advocate was crucial to act as an early warning system to identify emerging child abuse risks and ensure they are on the radar of companies and the regulator Ofcom.
NSPCC data also reveals that although VR spaces are being used to carry out child sexual abuse, it is Snapchat that is the social media platform of choice for paedophiles
Sir Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, said: ‘These new figures are incredibly alarming but reflect just the tip of the iceberg of what children are experiencing online.
‘We hear from young people who feel powerless and let down as online sexual abuse risks becoming normalised for a generation of children.
‘By creating a child safety advocate that stands up for children and families the Government can ensure the Online Safety Bill systemically prevents abuse.
‘It would be inexcusable if in five years’ time we are still playing catch-up to pervasive abuse that has been allowed to proliferate on social media.’
Broadcaster and child safety campaigner Carol Vorderman has also previously warned of the dangers of the emerging ‘metaverse’ for young children.
She, too, has called for new legislation to be brought in to protect users.
‘I’m appalled to hear of record cases of online child abuse, including in the metaverse,’ the presenter told the Times.
‘It is beyond time for the government to step up and take action to fully protect individuals, most notably children, in all areas of our virtual world.
‘Real-time interaction in the metaverse is currently an unregulated space.
‘The proposed online harms bill does not go far enough, and this is dangerous.’