United Kingdom

Dark side of the addictive game so many children can't stop playing

Tip-toeing into her eight-year-old daughter Emily’s bedroom, Lisa Deacon was expecting to find her little girl sleeping soundly.

Instead, Emily was wide awake, eyes glued to her mother’s iPad.

Cross that her daughter had not only taken the device without permission but continued using it after bedtime, Lisa whisked it away. It was only after she had returned to her own bedroom and saw what was on the iPad that her irritation turned to horror.

The computer game featured two naked male cartoon characters, aroused genitalia on display. One stood beside a female character, also naked, and was thrusting back and forth, simulating sex.

Cyber-security expert James Bore, fears some children who use Roblox are being targeted by paedophiles or prey to being radicalised

‘I felt sick that my daughter had seen this,’ says Lisa, 33, an educational administrator from Carlisle, Cumbria. ‘I’d done everything I could to make sure she was safe online, and yet she’d still come across these images.

‘It opened up a realm of fear about grooming and paedophilia.’

Amid her initial shock and confusion, Lisa was sure of just one fact: Emily, a friendly girl who loves art and gymnastics, had accessed the game on Roblox.

The most popular online entertainment forum for children under 13, Roblox is a game creation platform comprising more than 50 million games.

With its easy-to-access App and brightly-coloured Lego-like avatars (characters that players can use as their identity within the games), it allows children to join from the age of just seven (though, when signing up for an account, Roblox’s terms state users under 18 must have parental consent to register).

There are 1.5 million children using the platform in the UK, some as young as seven. As the popularity of computer games has soared during the pandemic, that figure will have risen further.

Most parents with primary school-age children will already be familiar with Roblox’s most popular games, including Adopt Me!, which allows children to acquire virtual pets such as unicorns; and Royale High, a school their avatars can attend.

Critics argue Roblox isn't doing enough to keep children from content that can cause harm and trauma to children. Pictured: Mel Sims’ daughter Olivia, ten, has had nightmares

The App is free to download, but Roblox has its own currency, Robux, which users buy to pay for accessories and customise avatars. Roblox takes a cut of games creators’ profits and the company has just been valued at £21.8 billion.

Lisa downloaded the Roblox App for Emily two years ago, reassured by automatic security controls that mean children under 13 can only send a direct message to users they have accepted as Roblox ‘friends’. ‘We told her not to add anyone to her friends list she didn’t know,’ says Lisa, who monitored that list every fortnight.

But two of Roblox’s biggest selling points — that children can interact with others, and that anyone with a computer can post their own game on the platform — provide its greatest dangers.

A spokesperson for Roblox told the Mail the platform works ‘relentlessly to create a safe and civil community’.

But critics say it isn’t doing enough. ‘Shocking content can cause harm and trauma to children,’ says cyber-security expert James Bore, who runs Bores Consultancy Ltd. He believes some are targeted by paedophiles on the platform, or become easy prey to being radicalised by games promoting extremism. ‘There are people creating games for Roblox who are neo-Nazis or belong to white supremacist groups,’ says Mr Bore.

Roblox claims that 1,700 staff worldwide monitor content 24 hours a day and technology is used to filter inappropriate content. Pictured: Mel Sims’ daughter Olivia

Though Roblox stresses that 1,700 staff worldwide monitor content 24 hours a day, it also relies on technology to filter inappropriate messages and images.

‘Any automated moderation can be beaten,’ says Mr Bore. ‘If unpleasant people get banned, they can just create another account. Roblox hasn’t worked hard enough to crack this problem.’

When Lisa complained to Roblox the morning after her awful discovery, the game Emily had been playing had already been removed, presumably, because somebody else had complained before her.

Roblox told the Mail they take swift action ‘typically within minutes’ to ‘address any content or any developer that violates our terms of use’, such as no cyber-bullying, stalking or harassing, and that all videos ‘receive a safety review by a human’ before becoming available.

Nonetheless, the creators of the game Emily had been viewing had managed to subvert the system.

Child psychologist Dr Michele McDowell, warns that young children often lack the ability to discern what's appropriate online 

A Roblox spokesperson said the company has, ‘no tolerance for content or behaviour that violates our own rules. We want parents to feel confident we are taking every step possible and are continually evolving the safety measures.

‘We have a stringent safety system — one of the most rigorous of any platform, going well beyond regulatory requirements. We constantly monitor the behaviour of our player community through human moderation and AI [artificial intelligence] and act swiftly to resolve any instances of questionable content.

‘We actively encourage our users to report any activity they feel uncomfortable or concerned about: players can easily mute or block players that they come across in games and report inappropriate content/behaviour.’

But child psychologist Dr Michele McDowell says: ‘Young children often lack the ability to discern what’s appropriate online.’

Kate Agnew’s seven-year-old daughter, Chloe, had no idea she was in potential danger when another player asked her if she wanted to have sex while playing Royale High. Chloe was on the platform with her 11-year-old cousin when her avatar started being followed around the virtual high school by a male avatar.

Kate Agnew’s seven-year-old daughter, Chloe, was asked by another player if she wanted to have sex while playing Royale High

Even if a child is under 13, without enhanced security settings they can still chat while playing a game, as there are public messages all the players are able to see. And if avatars are standing next to another one, the message will appear in a speech bubble next to the player it is directed at.

To circumvent the automated moderation, the player in the game Chloe was in had broken up the question with lots of punctuation and odd letters — a common strategy to bypass the system.

‘If they’d asked outright [for sex], the message would have been blocked,’ says Kate.

Chloe’s cousin took the iPad to a horrified Kate. ‘If it weren’t for someone sitting next to Chloe who understood what was happening, she could have been groomed by someone I have no doubt was an adult.’

‘For people setting up these accounts, there is nothing to confirm their identity,’ says Mr Bore. ‘Even if you enter an email address, it’s easy to set one up that could only be active for ten minutes.’

Mel has banned Olivia from playing any games on the platform except Adopt Me!. Pictured: Mel and Olivia  

Mel Sims, 48, a drinks company owner from Braintree, Essex, thought her daughter, Olivia, ten, was learning to look after others on Adopt Me!, but was shocked to discover she was also dabbling with games involving murder.

One, called Scary Elevator, puts a player’s avatar in a dark lift, alone, and challenges them to run from killers that ‘roam the floors’ as they escape monsters.

‘It freaks me out and gives me nightmares,’ says Olivia. ‘If you go up levels, it gets scarier and you can see the monsters carrying knives. I just let them kill me because I know they’re going to kill me anyway.’

Mel has now banned her from playing any games except Adopt Me!. ‘I thought Roblox was primary-school-children friendly,’ says Mel. ‘I didn’t know it would suggest games that would make her feel frightened.’

Kate and Chloe’s names have been changed

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