Tech companies need to “get a moral compass” and do more to protect children in the virtual worlds of the metaverse, the Children’s Commissioner for England has said.
Dame Rachel de Souza said she was “really horrified” after a BBC report found a metaverse app that allowed children as young as 13 into virtual strip clubs where sex was being simulated, and adults were able to freely interact with them.
The app is available on a range of devices, including the app store of Facebook’s Meta Quest virtual reality headset – which only requires a Facebook account to set up – and has come to prominence in recent months following Facebook’s company rebrand to Meta and founder Mark Zuckerberg’s declaration that the metaverse is the future of online connectivity.
The name refers to online spaces where people using virtual reality headsets access games, but they can also meet others for work and social experiences.
Dame Rachel told BBC Breakfast that tech companies are still not doing enough to make these online spaces safer for children, and she criticised Meta for what she said appeared to be a failure to build the metaverse with a safety by design approach.
“I’m really concerned that Meta hasn’t made their metaverse safe by design – we have an Age Appropriate Design Code – and I expected better of them,” she said.
“Are you telling me that Mark Zuckerberg, with all his fantastic engineers and ability to create this, can’t keep children safe?
“That’s my challenge to the social media companies and they should be stepping up now.”
The Children’s Commissioner also said she wants to see more age verification tools used to help keep children safe online.
Earlier this month, the Government announced that websites publishing pornography will be legally required to verify the age of their users under the Online Safety Bill, but the commissioner suggested she would like to see “age gates” used more broadly.
“I’ve been bringing the tech companies in to meet with me to get them to act more quickly and ensure that children can be safe online – they need to be as safe online as they are offline – and if I was a parent watching this, I’d be really worried,” she said, adding that young people have told her they have encountered inappropriate content online.
“That’s why I’m arguing for age verification, so that children are only getting age-appropriate experiences, that’s got to be embedded in this.
“But in terms of the (social media) companies, they need to do more, they need to step up. We’re constantly pushing them on this, the legislation hopefully will make a real difference.
“We’ll have proper age gates and force these companies to only give age-appropriate material to children.
“They know how old they are – they’re so advanced – they know our children and they need a moral compass here.”