Paedophiles using online virtual reality spaces to ‘groom and sexually abuse children’, NSPCC warns
Campaigners have called on MPs to urgently make the Online Safety Bill law in order to protect children using the Internet.
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Paedophiles are using virtual reality (VR) to groom, exploit, and sexually abuse children they have met online, a shocking new report has revealed.
The NSPCC commissioned a report on VR which has warned that offenders are using the technology as a secret online space to contact and target children. Paedophiles are simulating acts of abuse through ‘games’ on the dark web, “mirroring” the way they would abuse children offline, while victims can experience the sensation of being touched without their consent via a “phantom” touch facility.
The research also shows that illegal child images are being shared in these spaces, and warns of the possibility of offenders becoming desensitised to their actions - due to the anonymity the technology provides.
VR is a technology which immerses users in an online world and allows them to interact with users in a seemingly real way, via the use of a headset. Baroness Finlay previously told NationalWorld there is a concern that this will push offenders to “real life abuse”, as, due to how ‘real’ the experience can feel, “offenders report that they want more”. The peer explained: “In the case of VR, that would be moving to real life abuse.”
It comes after the NSPCC revealed in August that 34,000 online grooming crimes have been recorded by police forces across the UK since 2017 - when the charity first called for more robust online regulation. Figures show that 6,350 offences related to sexual communication with a child were recorded in 2022/2023 - an increase of 82% since 2017/2018 - with 5,500 of these offences taking place against primary school children.
It has prompted campaigners to call on MPs to ensure there are no more delays to the Online Safety Bill, which returns to Parliament in the next few days. Despite being introduced to Parliament back in March 2022, the proposed legislation - which aims to better protect children using the Internet - has suffered a drawn-out journey to becoming law due to repeated changes, debates, and controversies.
The NSPCC has therefore urged the government to push ahead with the bill - and encouraged it to review its safety regime on a regular basis to ensure it keeps up with emerging technologies such as VR.
Commenting on the new research, Richard Collard, head of child safety 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 government spokesperson commented: “This is exactly why we are bringing forward our landmark Online Safety Bill, which will soon become law, and as recognised, we’ve bolstered the bill along the way to strengthen protections for children.
“We’re working closely with Ofcom to make sure these are enforced as soon as possible so children are protected, and in the meantime, law enforcement has been working closely with social media platforms to bring perpetrators to justice for the abhorrent crimes that are committed online.”
Previously, the National Crime Agency told NationalWorld that the sexual exploitation of children in online spaces “is increasing in scale, severity and complexity” each year - as it estimated that more than half a million people in the UK who pose a sexual risk to children.
It also argued that social media companies are not doing enough to reduce online child sexual abuse, and called for “greater action and greater commitment” from the industry.