The NSPCC have released a new study highlighting how virtual reality is putting children at risk of child sexual abuse and exploitation.

The new research entitled, Child Safeguarding & Immersive Technologies, was undertaken by Limina Immersive who were commissioned by the children’s charity to assess what present and future risks children may face when using virtual reality.

The research paints a concerning picture of abuse taking place through immersive technology and illustrates the harm that children are already facing in these spaces.

This comes ahead of the Online Safety Bill being debated in the House of Lords this week and emphasises the important role regulation will play in tackling technology assisted child sexual abuse once this ground-breaking piece of legislation has been passed.

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.
  • VR multiuser spaces can desensitise offenders with avatar disguise and anonymity ‘normalising’ their abusive behaviour.
  • Multiuser VR worlds invite the creation of tighter knit offender ‘communities’, allowing for the sharing of child sexual abuse material and harmful behaviours to amplify and escalate.

The research includes insight from law enforcement agencies and experts and contains in-depth interviews with specialist coverts, who for the first time are sharing their information about emerging technologies that may pose risks to children.

UK law enforcement’s Online CSA Covert Intelligence Team (OCCIT) said in the study: “Virtual reality and the metaverse have the potential to be a monumental hurdle for law enforcement, criminal justice, and the safeguarding of vulnerable people. The proposed technology may have implications not seen since the global explosion of internet technologies”.

Crucially, the research includes key recommendations for technology companies, government, regulators, and law enforcement agencies on how to address abuse that takes place on immersive platforms.

Recommendations include:

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

The research includes testimony from victims who have been groomed in VR and includes an excerpt from “Exposing a VR Cult” by documentary filmmaker BrandonFM. In the film, one victim who wished to remain anonymous, described their experience of being groomed in virtual reality. They said: “The mental scars that this whole experience has put on my mind are so extreme that I was recently diagnosed with Stockholm Syndrome… it was so normal for [the offender] to have relationships with minors, in the bubble that we lived in… I came out of that situation with severe trust issues, and I am not sure when things will go back to normal”.

The findings from this research are due to be presented to key politicians, government officials and charity partners at an event in Parliament today where the research and its recommendations will be presented to those influencing the new online safety regulatory regime currently making its way through Parliament.

This comes as YouGov research commissioned by the NSPCC shows that the public are concerned about the risks children may face in VR spaces.

When asked, three quarters (75%) of the public said they believe that 6–12-year-olds are at major or significant risk of child sexual abuse on the metaverse while 80% believe that 13-16 year olds are at risk.

Richard Collard, Head of Child Safety Online Policy at the NSPCC, said: “These shocking findings should be a wake-up call to us all about the harm young people are facing when engaging with immersive technology.

“Technology will continue to progress, and so must we to ensure that we can understand the existing and emerging risks that young people face in these virtual spaces.

“As the Online Safety Bill completes its passage through Parliament, it is vital that new and emerging technology forms a crucial part of the online safety regime. This will only be made possible through clear collaboration between educators, parents, policymakers, and the technology industry.”

A specialist covert officer, who was interviewed in the research, said: “Virtual reality headsets and VR spaces are already being misused by those with ill intentions. These technologies further expose children to the risk of abuse, whilst at the same time reducing opportunities for intervention, safeguarding and appropriate prosecutions.

“2023 sees technology being abused in ways that we would not have accurately predicted 12 months ago. This underlines the need for legislators, law enforcement and technology companies to work closer together and at a pace that better reflects the rapidly evolving tech landscape.”

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