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Child advocate warns of virtual reality gaming as a gateway to exploitation

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Posted at 6:58 AM, Jul 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-12 10:53:10-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.  — Gavin McSweeney, 15, has been gaming for four years.

"I think it's fun to play with your friends and stuff," McSweeney said.

McSweeney's mother, Julie Shapiro, used to ask that her son play games online in her presence, but as he's gotten older, Shapiro allows her son to play in his bedroom.

"As a parent, you're worried about what's on the other side," Shapiro said. "I have trust in him."

One of McSweeney's favorite games of late is a boxing game on his virtual reality headset, which is a gaming device geared towards people 13 and older.

McSweeney said he's had several scary encounters in chatrooms while using the headset.

"Some guy told me he had my home address and everything, and I was like, 'No.' Shut the game off. I didn't play for like two months probably because I was just freaking out about it," he said.

Callahan Walsh, who is the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said parents need to be aware that trendy technology, like virtual reality headsets, can be a gateway to dangerous situations.

"A lot of exploitation does not happen in the game itself, but that's the first point of communication," Walsh said.

In March of 2022, the FBI issued a warning about sextortion schemes targeting young boys, where an exploiter lures a child into sending an explicit image and then blackmails the child for more illegal content.

"Children are often reluctant to come forward because of the shame that's associated with that, especially teen boys, and that's why we're seeing suicide rates increase among boys and children who've been exploited online," Walsh said.

Walsh, a gamer and parent, offers the following advice for families:

  • Understand the technology: Parents should use the technology and pay special attention to chat features and how they work.
  • Set ground rules and stick to them: Walsh said this is especially important if there has been bad behavior in the past.
  • Keep up the conversation: Normalize conversations in your home about what's happening with your children in the digital space.

"Almost always, a parent doesn't find out about it until it's too late, until a child has already sent that sexually explicit image," Walsh said.

Shapiro found it helpful and interesting to cast her son's boxing game from his virtual reality headset to her cell phone, where the game is displayed on both simultaneously. Parents can also mirror the game to a television and periodically check on their child's gaming.

Click here for more online safety tips and resources through the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children's NetSmartz program.