Virtual reality kits are set to be some of the most popular Christmas presents this year, as kids look to meet up with their friends in a virtual world.
Headsets like the Oculus Quest or the HTC Vive are an enormously popular, if expensive, way to meet up with one another in the metaverse.
But parents have been given a chilling warning by children's charities, who claim that many metaverse spaces are still unregulated and potentially unsafe for children.
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Childline, which operates a counselling service for young people over telephone, shared one terrifying encounter a girl of secondary school age had in the metaverse.
According to the charity, one student said: "Recently I met a guy on my VR game, and I'm confused about how I should feel about him.
"He's really bad, like he always makes sexual comments towards me and asks me to 'kiss' him in the game.
"I know that's messed up, but I love his voice, and he makes me feel like the person I'd rather be. Nobody gives me that kind of affection in the real world. I guess that's why I use VR, so I can look and be like someone I'm not, and it makes me feel good about myself."
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Kate Edwards, who leads the NSPCC's child safety unit online, has warned: "Parents who may be thinking about purchasing a VR headset for their child this Christmas need to be aware of the risks young users currently face when given access to what, at this stage, is an unregulated world."
The NSPCC's warning is one of many that have been issued to parents this year. In April, former Countdown presenter and long-term techie Carol Vorderman called for more safeguarding in the metaverse.
Vorderman told the Daily Star: "My advice to parents is don't let your kids do it unless you know it's safe. Right now, it's the Wild West. Why would you let your child go to some park to meet a stranger and just say 'okay'? Unless you know that where they're going is safe and you can effectively monitor what they're seeing on a computer screen, don't let them do it."
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How to keep children safe when using VR
If you are thinking about getting your kids some VR kit this Christmas, there are a few safety tips that the NSPCC recommends you follow:
- Take some time to explore the headset yourself and any apps before allowing your child to use it
- Make the VR headset into a family activity where you take turns as a group and play it together
- Learn what you can about parental and privacy controls, as well as any additional safety features
- Have a conversation with your children about how they use VR and make sure they know not to share any personal information
- Create set times for using the VR headset
It's also worth considering monitoring your child's VR usage via the computer screen, as this will display what they are 'seeing' in the virtual world.
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