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New research project reveals threats to children's safety in the Metaverse

MDX and UEL academics are exploring the safety of children in the Metaverse and found many users face issues with racism, homophobia and sexual harassment

MetaverseNew research from University of East London and Middlesex University exploring children’s safety in the Metaverse found two thirds had been asked to send an image and considered the risk of grooming and having private information published the biggest risks.

Young people using the Metaverse also reported issues with racism, homophobia and sexual harassment, while 33% admitted speaking to a stranger on the chat apps.

Researchers from UEL and MDX, led by Professor Julia Davidson OBE and Dr. Elena Martellozzo, are at the forefront of ground-breaking child protection research, exploring the intricacies of The Metaverse, a virtual reality world with a computer generated environment in which people can interact.

This initiative aims to identify emerging technological risks, potentially leading to a re-evaluation of existing child safeguarding strategies.

Funded by National Research Centre on Privacy, Harm Reduction and Adversarial Influence Online (REPHRAIN), this impactful research has gained in depth understanding regarding children's perceptions and feelings about online safety within the 2D and 3D Metaverse.

The project has received invaluable support from partners such as Kabuni, under the leadership of Nina Jane Patel, and ChildNet. Working closely with these organisations, the research team engaged with eleven children and young people, aged between 15 and 18, in an immersive two-hour experience. Placing children at the core of their work, the team prioritises hearing directly from them about their experiences, desires, and fears.

Before immersing themselves in the 3D Metaverse, the children were questioned about their prior experiences. They all expressed enjoyment of online games, citing the thrill and challenge of the games, along with the expansive environment that allowed unrestricted movement— a sort of virtual "escape" from everyday life. Interestingly, they revealed a lack of interest in playing online 2D Metaverse games for socialising and meeting new people. Instead, they saw it as a means of sustaining existing relationships with friends and family.

When asked about their least liked aspects, the  main concern revolved around the behaviour of other online players. The children disclosed encounters with racism, homophobia, and sexual harassment, either directed at them personally or witnessed happening to others. This aligns with existing research indicating that adolescents are more likely to become targets of online hate crimes than adults and to report such incidents.

Despite expressing concern about online hate crimes, the participants did not consider it a significant risk. Instead, they perceived grooming and doxing as the most significant threats . Most participants believed that it was impossible to trust someone online whom they did not know in person, emphasising the importance of offline connections in establishing trust. In turn, the children acknowledged that increased communication with unknown individuals online heightened their trust, a behaviour intrinsically linked to the modus operandi of grooming.

Furthermore, the children acknowledged playing online games with strangers, recognising the associated risks while still engaging with strangers for the purpose of play. Approximately 33 per cent of participants admitted to speaking to people they do not know in chat apps, extending their online interactions into more private and encrypted spaces using personal devices. 66 per cent reported being asked to send an image of themselves to a stranger. Despite these encounters, all participants claimed to know how and when to report other users, with 88 per cent stating that they had filed reports against other online users.

After engaging in the Virtual Reality (VR) 3D Metaverse, in which the children were able to explore independently or game with other participants, the children were asked a series of questions about their experiences, which were viewed as positive, and enjoyed by all.

Upon further probing, the children acknowledged experiencing reality confusion and sometimes felt overwhelmeddue to the immersive nature of the VR environment. When asked whether they felt safe, 73 per cent of the participants stated that they did,with 46 per cent of participants viewing that this was due to being with others that they knew and being in an offline environment in which they felt safe.

“I felt safe mostly because the people in the game I had already met in real life. If I was playing with strangers I would have felt differently and most likely quite anxious and scared.” [Boy age XX]

When asked whether the VR environment felt like a safe space, 55 per cent of participants were unsure especially regarding the possibility of engaging with people they do not know, and 54 per cent viewed that knowing other people’s true offline identities was important.

None of the participants considered the 3D Metaverse to be a safe space for children. Their apprehensions centred around the potential exposure of children to violent content, the risk of desensitisation, and the fear that this environment could foster online disinhibition, which refers to the tendency of individuals to detach a certain degree of responsibility from their online actions.

Despite these views, 73 per cent of the participants wanted to spend more time inside the Metaverse, and 64 per cent wanted to own a headset as it was more exciting than 2D metaverse games. This may suggest that their perceived concerns or unsureness were mitigated by the sensations of experiencing the virtual environment.

When asked what they thought was needed for children to feel safe in the 3D Metaverse, the children felt that there needed to be greater levels of moderation and increased safety provisions such as restrictions regarding who children can and cannot speak to.

A version of this blog was originally published on the University of East London website. The views of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of Middlesex University.

Photo by WTFast on Unsplash

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