Virtual reality technology makes its first appearance in reports of child abuse

Pedophiles are beginning to use virtual reality headsets to view images of child abuse, crime records suggest.

Children’s charity NSPCC received data from police forces in England and Wales, including details of which social media sites or types of technology were mentioned in reported crimes.

Police recorded 30,925 offenses involving obscene images of children in 2021/22, the highest number ever recorded by armed forces in England and Wales.

Of these, a social media or gaming site was captured in 9,888 cases – including Snapchat 4,293 times, Facebook 1,361 times; Instagram 1,363 and WhatsApp 547.

Virtual reality has been recorded eight times in crime reports by police forces, the first time this technology has been specifically mentioned, the NSPCC said.

NSPCC chief executive Sir Peter Wanless said the figures were “the tip of the iceberg” (Jon Challicom/NSPCC/PA)

The NSPCC is calling for changes to the Online Safety Bill to create a Child Safety Advocate to represent the interests of children and families.

She is also calling for changes in the law that would make social media site executives criminally liable if children are subjected to avoidable abuse.

Sir Peter Wanless, Chief Executive of the NSPCC, said: “These new figures are incredibly alarming but represent only the tip of the iceberg of what children are experiencing online.

“We hear from young people who feel powerless and abandoned as online sexual abuse threatens to become the norm for a generation of children.

“By creating a Child Safety Advocate to advocate for children and families, the government can ensure that the Online Safety Act systematically prevents abuse.

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“It would be inexcusable if five years from now we were still catching up on the pervasive abuse that was allowed to proliferate on social media.”

A government spokesman said: “The protection of children is at the heart of the Online Safety Act and we have put in place strong, world-leading measures to achieve this goal while ensuring that the interests of children and families are represented through the Children’s Ombudsman.

“Virtual reality platforms are within reach and will be forced to protect children from exploitation and remove heinous content about child abuse. If companies fail to effectively address this material, they could face hefty fines and possible criminal penalties against their executives.”

The story goes on

A spokesman for Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, said it reports sexual exploitation of children to the international child protection organization National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

He added: “This horrific content is prohibited on our apps and we report cases of child sexual exploitation to NCMEC.

“We are an industry leader in the development and use of technology to prevent and remove this content, and we are working with law enforcement, child safety experts and industry partners to address this societal issue.

“Our work in this space is never finished and we will continue to do everything we can to keep this content off our apps.”