In the last few years, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing aspects of everyday life have moved online, whether grocery shopping, teaching, or working. This trend of individuals leading their lives virtually naturally comes with numerous positives. However, the virtual world also introduces new concerns, particularly for children.
In 2021, Mark Zuckerberg, the owner and founder of Facebook, announced the release of his new brand 'Meta', providing an online space named the 'metaverse'. This platform to which you connect through a virtual headset is envisioned by Zuckerberg as the future of society, offering a blend of the digital and physical worlds. It enables individuals to engage in various activities, including playing immersive online games using holographic avatars and video, simulating real life.
Currently, in the UK, 91% of children aged between 3 and 15 play games on some form of device, with over ¾ of 12 to 15-year-olds playing online games. Most of these games are currently facilitated on online gaming consoles, with only 5% of children using virtual reality (VR) headsets. However, VR is rapidly growing. With its impending normalisation in society through companies like Apple, who have announced the release of a mixed-reality headset in 2024, there are increasing concerns about the dangers this virtual platform could present to children.
These concerns have unfortunately recently been materialised, through the report of the rape of a minor in the metaverse, the first of its kind. The girl was playing an immersive game using a virtual reality headset when her avatar was ganged up upon and sexually assaulted by others in the game.
This first official report has brought other individuals subjected to virtual abuse into the light. Nina Jane Patel, a researcher, revealed in 2022 that she was sexually harassed and assaulted by three to four male avatars in a game facilitated by Meta called Horizon Venues. She describes it as a 'surreal nightmare' and noted that the 'physiological and psychological' experience was akin to real life.
Online discussion surrounding the topic shows some individuals questioning whether an online attack can be constituted as a crime, arguing that the game can just be turned off. However, Patel emphasises that despite virtual games lacking physical touch, 'virtual reality has essentially been designed so the mind and body can't differentiate virtual/digital experiences from real'.
She highlights that 'unlike in the physical world, there's a lack of clear and enforceable rules in the metaverse'. In English and Welsh criminal law, rape and sexual assault require physical contact, and it is currently unsure whether this crime could be transposed into the virtual world. A writer guardian emphasises cases of online assault will be important tests for the newly implemented Online Safety Bill, designed to protect individuals online. Experts express concerns that the current legislative structure is not enough. With the next generation of children likely to spend their time using virtual platforms, lawmakers need to implement further protections to hold individuals committing sexually motivated attacks on virtual media responsible.
Due to the lack of concrete legislation on this issue, the police force has strongly expressed the need for tech companies to do more to protect their users. Ian Critchley of the National Police Chiefs' Council labels the metaverse in its current form as a 'gateway for predators to commit horrific crimes against children, crimes we know have lifelong impacts both emotionally and mentally'.
Meta, unfortunately, already holds a bad track record for the protection of young people, with reports from previous workers revealing the devastating impact Instagram and Facebook have on children, particularly teenage girls. Demands for changes do not seem to have been met yet, and in reporting her attack to Meta, Patel was told the assault was 'absolutely unfortunate' and was 'good feedback'. Arwa Mahdawi, a writer for the Guardian, spoke out, saying this response was 'casual victim blaming' and was the 'digital equivalent of telling women that if they don't want to get harassed while walking down the street, then they should just stay at home'.
We are still waiting to see where such attacks will stand legally. However, it is certain that with the growing use of virtual platforms, increased protection is necessary, particularly regarding children.