Pedophilia, sexual coercion and adult content widespread in Metaverse
A BBC researcher puts on a 13-year-old guise and sees what happens.
The Metaverse could pose big risks to children, given that some apps in the virtual reality world are simply "dangerous by design," according to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).
The BBC researcher, Jess Sherwood, posed as a 13-year-old girl, and she was subject to grooming, racist insults, and a rape threat in addition to being exposed to sexual material in the metaverse.
The NSPCC said they were "shocked and angry" at what they experienced.
Sherwood used an app that bears a minimum age of 13 and was granted access to a virtual-reality room where people were engaging in sexual contact. She was shown adult-rated material, such as condoms, and was approached by many men.
Sherwood used a headset produced by Meta, the Meta Quest - which owns up to 75% of the market share. She used the VRChat to be able to explore the Metaverse through 3D avatars.
Although the app wasn't made by Facebook, it can be downloaded through the Meta Quest headset with no age checks.
Inside the VRChat, users can engage in all sorts of meet-ups and activities, including going to McDonald's. However, there are some not-so-innocent endeavors, such as strip clubs, where avatars, children and adults, can take their clothes off and "do unspeakable things," as one man told the BBC researcher.
After this investigation, the NSPCC stressed that online safety is urgent, and that what was found was "extraordinary."
"It's children being exposed to entirely inappropriate, really incredibly harmful experiences," said Andy Burrows of the NSPCC.
"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," he said.
One safety campaigner, who asked to remain anonymous for the safety of his family, spoke to BBC and said that virtual reality is so immersive that children were instructed to act out sexual movements
Sherwood weighed in on her experience acting as a 13-year-old in VRChat: "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.
"VRChat definitely felt more like an adult's playground than a child's. A lot of the rooms were overtly sexualised 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.
"The music playing in the rooms, which can be controlled by the players, adds to the impression that it is not a space that is suitable for children."
Harassment in the Metaverse is an existential threat to Zuckerberg's plans
Andrew Bosworth, the Chief Technology Officer at Facebook's rebrand label, Meta, said that harassment poses an "existential threat" to Zuckerberg's plans for the metaverse.
Although the CTO in an article in the Financial Times said he wanted Meta to have "Disney levels of safety," harassment could bear a "toxic environment" to women and minorities in particular.
If safety in the metaverse is not dealt with properly, users will be driven away from the medium. However, Bosworth asserts that controlling what people say and their behavior "at any meaningful scale is practically impossible."
Meta, for now, is relying on artificial intelligence to regulate speech and behavior. However, in the long term, that will change. “Meta is not going to build, own, or run the metaverse on its own. We are starting conversations about our vision for the metaverse early before some of the technologies even exist”, said a Meta spokesperson to The Independent.