How can parents ensure the safety of their children in the growing threat of virtual reality grooming?

How can parents ensure the safety of their children in the growing threat of virtual reality grooming?

The popularity of virtual reality (VR) headsets among both adults and children is on the rise. These headsets are part of extended reality environments that offer realistic and immersive experiences. VR allows users to enter computer-generated 3D worlds and games with different environments and interactions, often referred to as the “metaverse.”

While most VR headsets have age limits of 10-13 years due to safety concerns, young children, including preschoolers, are increasingly using VR. The immersive nature of these technologies makes it challenging to monitor children’s experiences and interactions. This raises concerns about their safety.

VR provides children with the opportunity to immerse themselves in digital worlds and assume different characters or avatars. The stimuli in VR can create a sense of virtual presence, making it feel like they are actually in the virtual location. When children interact with others in the virtual world, the psychological realism is enhanced, resulting in fun and rewarding experiences.

However, there are also negative impacts associated with VR use by children. Children often struggle to distinguish between what happens in VR and the real world. As they identify with their avatars, the boundary between them and the VR device becomes blurred. This can lead to the development of traumatic memories when playing in virtual worlds. The immersive nature of VR makes the child’s avatar feel “real,” and these experiences can potentially turn into real-world traumatic memories.

One concerning issue related to children’s engagement with VR is the rise of “cyber grooming.” Online predators use various grooming strategies to manipulate children into sexual interactions, sometimes leading to offline encounters without parental knowledge. These predators often build relationships with children using non-threatening grooming strategies, making the child view them as trusted friends rather than strangers. This renders prevention messages about strangers ineffective in protecting children.

Research suggests that online sex offenders are usually acquaintances, and some adult predators pretend to be peers or children themselves. Sexual approaches by adults are more common on platforms widely used by children. Police statistics from the United Kingdom show an 84% increase in “sexual communication with a child” offenses between 2017-18 and 2021-22.

The hidden nature of cyber grooming makes it challenging to determine its true prevalence. Reports indicate that approximately 20% of children have experienced online sexual solicitation, and up to 25% have reported sexual interaction with an adult online. Children have also been exposed to explicit sexual content on social online gaming platforms like Roblox, which can create memories as if the virtual experience happened in real life.

To protect children from cyber grooming, parents need to be aware of grooming patterns and signs. However, this can be difficult if they are unfamiliar with the technology their child is using. It is crucial for parents to try VR themselves and understand what their children experience in extended reality environments. By doing so, parents can have conversations with their children about their experiences and understand who they are interacting with.

Parents should also review parental controls and safety features on each platform and actively learn about their children’s activities and interactions. With these safeguards in place, parents can allow their children to enjoy VR headsets while keeping them protected.

If you suspect your child is being targeted by grooming or exploitation or come across exploitation material, you can report it through ThinkuKnow or contact your local police. Children, teens, and young adults who need help and support can call the Kids Helpline. Adults who experienced abuse as children can seek support from the Blue Knot Helpline or visit their website.