Child advocate warns of virtual reality gaming as gateway to exploitation

'As a parent, you worry about what's going to be on the other side,' mother says
Posted at 11:47 AM, Dec 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-07 11:47:17-05

JUPITER, 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 worry about what's going to be 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, like, 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 freaked 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.

Callahan Walsh talks about dangers of virtual reality gaming
Callahan Walsh, with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, speaks about the dangers of virtual reality gaming.

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

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

"Children are often times reluctant to come forward because of the shame that's associated with that, especially with boys, and that's why we're seeing the suicide rates increase amongst 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 the home about what's happening in the digital space.

"Almost always, a parent doesn't find out about it until it's already 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.