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'Dangerous by design' metaverse apps allow children to access immersive digital sex clubs

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Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A researcher who went under cover in the metaverse as a 13-year-old girl witnessed grooming, graphic sexual material, and threats of rape.

The researcher, the BBC reported, used an app with a minimum age rating of 13 and visited virtual reality rooms where other users’ avatars were simulating explicit acts. The researcher, whose online presence depicted that of a 13-year-old girl, was shown sex toys and condoms and approached by several adult men.

One man told the researcher that in the metaverse, users’ avatars can “get naked and do unspeakable things.” Other users approached the researcher while in the metaverse and discussed “erotic role-play.”

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, a British charity dedicated to the welfare of Great Britain’s children, warned that some of the apps in the metaverse are “dangerous by design” as there is very little content moderation in the metaverse.

For instance, the app used by the researcher to access the metaverse, VRChat, allows its users to access any number of immersive chatrooms. Some of these rooms are as innocuous as digital McDonald’s, while others allow users to watch and participate in pole dancing or even attend digitally immersive strip clubs.

Mr. Burrows of the NSPCC said, “It’s children being exposed to entirely inappropriate, really incredibly harmful experiences. This is a product that is dangerous by design, because of oversight and neglect. We are seeing products rolled out without any suggestion that safety has been considered.”

Jess Sherwood, the researcher who went under cover, said, “I was surprised how totally immersed in the spaces you are. I started to feel like a child again. So when grown men were asking why I wasn’t in school and encouraging me to engage in VR sex acts, it felt all the more disturbing.”

She said, “VRChat definitely felt more like an adult’s playground than a child’s. A lot of the rooms were overtly sexualized in pink neon, similar to what you might see in the red-light district in Amsterdam or in the more seedy parts of London’s Soho at night. Inside, sex toys were on display.”

Catherine Allen, founder of a UK-based augmented and digital reality consulting firm, said that while VR can be “fun and surreal,” it also tends to be “quite traumatic and disturbing.”

She described an incident in a Meta-owned app where she and a 7-year-old girl were surrounded by a group of men who joked about raping them.

VRChat said that it was “working hard to make itself a safe and welcoming place for everyone” and that “predatory and toxic behavior has no place on the platform.”

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