The dangers of the sex industry in the virtual reality metaverse have been outlined in a new report, with children aged under 13 at risk of viewing sexual content online and accessing cyber brothels.
The metaverse is a broad term, made famous last year by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who announced new plans for the platform. It generally refers to shared virtual world environments which people can access via the internet.
The term can refer to digital spaces which are made more lifelike by the use of virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR). Users in AR spaces wear immersive headsets and move with handheld controllers.
Common Sense Media, a non-profit offering families entertainment and technology recommendations, released a report Kids and the Metaverse, which found a number of issues with the platform.
"The metaverse is a series of connected digital worlds in which users can interact through first-person avatars," it states. "Some enter it with virtual reality devices, but many use just a smartphone or computer screen.
"Every day, millions of children experience a corner of the metaverse through games like Roblox, Fortnite, and Minecraft."
The report found the metaverse was rife with sexually explicit content, abusive language and behaviour – as well as privacy and data collection issues.
"Other activists and researchers have similarly reported witnessing children being forced to engage in simulated sexual acts (in VR), as well as a seven-year-old girl encircled by men threatening to rape her," it said.
While the report did not specify which platform this horrifying incident occurred on, it went on to detail other dangers associated with popular game Roblox which reported over 100 million monthly users under 13 years old in 2021.
"And on the (VR) platform Roblox, users create short-lived virtual strip clubs and 'condo games', where minors offer virtual dances and sexual acts, as well as nude photographs off-platform, to adults in exchange for 'Robux' (an in-game currency)," the report said.
The report described sexual abuse, bullying and other forms of abuse were "rampant" online.
"A global study from 2021 found that 34 per cent of respondents (children) had been asked to do something sexually explicit online during childhood," it said.
Another analysis found there to be a 77 per cent increase in child "self-generated" sexual material from 2019 to 2020, 80 per cent of which came from girls age 11 to 13.
Earlier this year, a BBC News researcher also investigated safety issues by posing as a 13-year-old girl on the platform. While using the metaverse they witnessed grooming, sexual material, racist insults and a rape threat.
The publication said the reporter visited virtual-reality rooms where avatars were simulating sex. She was shown sex toys and condoms and was approached by numerous adult men.
Like most platforms on current iterations of the internet, users of the metaverse can easily fake their age to be younger or older. There has also been ongoing concern about how the easily duped age restrictions will work alongside a rapidly growing online sex industry.
"In the metaverse, young users can regularly come across virtual strip clubs, sexual grooming, simulated sex acts, and rape threats," the Kids and Metaverse report stated.
"Because VR is designed to immerse the entire body, abuse has the potential to be more traumatic, if and when it occurs, than in other online formats.
"The metaverse is a wild, understudied, and unregulated place," it continued. "Whether it becomes a dystopia or utopia will largely depend on how seriously we take its potential harms, particularly for young people, and how quickly we act to prevent them."
The report also highlighted the importance of parents regularly talking to their children about their experiences online – even playing virtual reality games alongside them – to ensure they were safe and would tell a trusted grown up if they had been approached by a stranger asking for or sending sexually explicit material.
"In a 2021 analysis, only 12 per cent of minors who received sexual messages or requests for nude images from adults reported these interactions to a parent, caregiver, or other trusted adult," the report stated.
"Furthermore, only 6 per cent of minors reported telling a trusted adult if another adult sent them a nude image or video."
In response to the Kids and the Metaverse report, Meta, formerly known as Facebook, told NBC News parents had to maintain some responsibility about what they view online.
"We want everyone using our products to have a good experience and easily find the tools that can help in situations where our rules are broken, so we can investigate and take action," a Meta spokesman said.
"Quest devices are designed for children ages 13 and up, and some experiences are only for people 18 and up.
"We're making parental supervision tools available on Quest in the coming months, allowing parents and guardians to be more involved in their teens' experiences in VR."