VR is an exciting and revolutionary modern technology that is steadily being released to the public, with companies such as Steam, PlayStation, Oculus, HTC, and most recently Meta rapidly releasing content to be consumed by people all over the world. But as with all technological advancements, there are certain risks, dangers, and adversities. As a disclaimer, sensitive topics such as child exploitation and sexual abuse will be mentioned in this article.
What is VR?
The purpose of Virtual Reality (VR) is to bring true-to-life environments and situations to the consumer, regardless of who or where they are. Want to ride a roller coaster in Germany? Viel Spaß! Ever wanted to experience your favorite fantasy worlds through your own eyes? You can do that too! Just strap on your headset, and dive into the rabbit hole that is modern virtual reality. Buckle up - it isn't all sunlight and roses!
Popular social spaces
As you might imagine, experiencing VR all on your lonesome gets boring after a while; thus, various social spaces have popped up in the realm of VR, whether it be multiplayer lobbies in your favorite golfing game, head to head wargames in shooters, or entire games developed to befriending other VR gamers and making memories.
Of the latter, two of the most popular platforms thus far are VRChat (geared more towards adults, but available to all), and Rec Room (geared more towards children, boasting a kid-safe COPPA certification for kid-friendly content). Both of these platforms are quite lacking in moderators and content filters, which sadly results in inappropriate behavior between children and adults as common occurrences.
Grooming and sexual abuse
Combining the fact that avatars can be custom made, there being no hindrance to sex offenders using VR, and the ability to hide behind the screen of anonymity that is the internet, it's no surprise that sexual harassment is a recurring issue in VR. After all - if a sex offender being within a certain distance of a school is deemed dangerous, why would interacting with children in VR be any different?
Recently, a beta tester for the Meta platform spoke out about being groped, which paved the way for various other victims to speak out about issues such as indecent exposure, grooming, stalking, and even exchange of child exploitation material. With this ongoing issue of harassment in VR, it's important to bring attention to the ways you can protect yourself or your children on these platforms.
Identifying abuse on this platform is quite simple - let’s take VRChat as an example. Users have the ability to change the appearance of their avatar, including pornographic images, GIF videos, or 3D models - this can be used to expose minors to graphic content, and is a popular way to harass other users on the platform.
Preventing children from abuse on VR platforms
Now that you know some of the ways harassment takes place in virtual reality, you can learn about some ways to prevent yourself or your children from falling victim to it. Depending on the platform, there are various content filters and privacy settings that you can manipulate to filter out graphic materials. This varies from platform to platform, so I will go over basic privacy settings in VRChat, and a brief overview of how you can avoid graphic material in Rec Room.
Inside VRChat, which has a wide amount of NSFW content catered to adults, there are dedicated and flushed-out content filter settings to help you pick and choose what you can and can’t see. One of the most comprehensive ways to do this is the Trust and Safety system, which you can see in action below.
The Trust and Safety system allows you to control what aspects of other players you can see or hear, letting you disable custom animations, shaders, particle effects, avatars, and even noises from other users - giving the user the control to block out any unwanted or harmful material.
Though Rec Room is similar to VRChat in that it is a social hangout game, it admittedly has much less to offer in terms of content screening or filtering. Instead, to keep children from being exposed to harmful materials, children 12 or under who sign up for Rec Room will be assigned a junior account.
Players who use a junior account cannot participate in voice chats; text other players in lobbies; make their own custom names; damage team members during quests; create custom lobbies; attend events or clubs, or play charades (a game in which players create drawings, which includes no content filters).
Non-junior accounts can also opt to only join rooms with other non-junior players, meaning that you can effectively segregate children from teenagers/adults, which helps to prevent accidental exposure to harmful content. Additionally, if a child lies about their age during signup and is detected to be a child, their account will automatically be transitioned to a junior account, which instills the previously mentioned content blockers.
Virtual reality is a technological wonder; allowing many people to do and see things they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do. However, new technologies always have some downsides and issues, and the world is not a perfect place. There are predators and harassers across the globe, and giving them access to VR doesn’t change the fact that they are actively seeking out victims. So to fully enjoy these social spaces, intended to make new friends and experiences, you should make yourself aware of the many ways you can protect against this kind of behavior.