‘I was asked for a nude photo after making a ‘friend’ on Roblox’

‘I was asked for a nude photo after making a ‘friend’ on Roblox’

Concerns about sexual content in children’s online games are growing. Ofcom, the regulator for online safety, has told tech firms to hide “toxic” content from children and published a draft code of practice. “James” shared his experience of being approached on Roblox and asked for sexual images.

Eight-year-old James is sitting in his bedroom playing on Roblox – a game aimed at children that allows them to access the “ultimate virtual universe”.

A message appears: “Do you want to be friends?”

Just a few weeks later, this person would ask James for intimate and sexual photos of himself.

“I’m young and I think this person is my friend,” said James, not his real name.

“It started out very innocent… then it was like, ‘let’s take this conversation to Kik [the mobile chat app]’.

“They asked for sexual pictures, they wanted to see my naked body, that’s the word they used, and they tried to portray it as OK and normal.”

For those unfamiliar with the platform, Roblox allows people to play and create various games in a 3D world.

No age restrictions, allowing adults and children to play and communicate together.

Police forces across the country consider it one of a number of children’s play sites where grooming is a growing problem.

If you have been affected by the issues in this story, you can get help and support on the BBC Action Line.

James, who is from Gloucestershire and is now in his 20s, is one of thousands of children who have been asked for sexual images online by someone pretending to be their age.

“At a young age, all you want is friends, so I talked to those people,” James said.

“They ask questions like how old am I, where am I from, my name, which I answer because at a young age you don’t think about any of that information, you don’t think people will use that maliciously against you.

“It’s a child’s game, I don’t think any grown-up would play it.”

Asking for intimate or sexual photographs of children is an offense under the Sexual Offenses Act 2003 – even if the photographs are not sent.

James said he knew this was wrong even at eight years old and quickly blocked the person he now believed to be a grown man.

But that was not the end.

“They persistently tried to communicate with me on Roblox,” James said.

“They would come on my account originally meeting them… they would then harass me by following me into the game I was playing and keep talking to me until I couldn’t play for a while.

“I felt vulnerable because I was always being followed by this person who was so horrible. It was scary.”

Being ashamed of what happened, James didn’t tell anyone.

“I want to lock it,” he said.

“You think ‘how did I let that happen’, ‘why did I do that’, but I now realize that none of it is in my control.

“You’re told as a kid don’t talk to strangers, but when you’re online, you think everyone is your friend.

“They know what they’re doing, they know how to deal with it.”

Despite what happened, James didn’t feel turning away from Roblox was an option.

That’s where his real friends are and he doesn’t want to miss out. Although he felt depressed and uncomfortable, he continued to play the game until he was about 13 years old.

In its purest form, Roblox has a lot to offer. There are more than 4.4 million “active immersive experiences”, from games to social hangouts, to sports, education and entertainment.

Roblox said: “The well-being of the Roblox community is our top priority, and we are deeply saddened to hear about this case.

“We continue to invest in and expand our security tools, teams and policies dedicated to catching and preventing attempts at malicious or harmful activity on our platform to protect community members.”

What can parents do?

Being online is part of everyday life for most children.

Data from Ofcom shows almost all children (99%) spend time online, and nine out of 10 own a mobile phone by the time they reach the age of 11.

Ofcom also found that three in five secondary school-aged children (11-18 years) have been contacted online in a way that has the potential to make them feel uncomfortable.

About 30% have received unwanted friend or follow requests. Around one in six secondary students (16%) have either been sent nude or half-clothed photos, or asked to share them themselves.

Avon and Somerset Police is one of many teams proactively lending a helping hand.

It said there were 93 sexual grooming offenses reported in the past 12 months that carried a “cyber flag”.

Of those, four were also identified as involving child abuse, and another 39 included references to child sexual exploitation.

The team has held workshops in schools for children and parents in an effort to raise awareness of risks that vary from online grooming to bullying and financial loss.

Last year, more than 150 schools were visited, reaching over 25,000 people.

The BBC was invited to Bailey’s Court Primary School in Bradley Stoke, near Bristol, where children were questioned and taught about online risks while parents heard about the potential dangers and how best to reduce them.

Megan Haldane, cyber protection officer for the force, said: “Over the last few years, there’s been a steady increase [in online grooming cases] because children are becoming more and more dependent on technology and that’s not going away, they’re always going to be dependent on technology. , it’s part of everyday life.”

Ms Haldane, who has worked with the cyber team for about two years, said as technology had evolved and changed, so had the way children were targeted.

“There are a lot of different platforms out there and each one goes through phases of being the most worrisome at the time,” he said.

“It tends to spiral, like James with Roblox. That’s where he was targeted and unfortunately he’s not alone in experiencing that, a lot of stories I’ve heard related to that particular platform, but that doesn’t mean that every other platform is safe, unfortunately it’s not.

“If it has a chat function or the ability to communicate with other individuals, it’s an immediate concern because that’s where the concern comes from.”

Ms Haldane believes the risk is “not going to go away” completely, adding: “Once we dominate one platform, and learn to control it, or it becomes better controlled, criminals will move to another platform and start using that platform instead.”

However, he hopes the workshops he leads will help children and parents navigate the online world. He stressed the importance of reporting any concerns to either the police or charities such as Childline and Crimestoppers.

“The important message is that parents and children should not feel ashamed or embarrassed – there is only one person to blame and that is the offender,” he said.

“One takeaway tip I would give is to always keep that conversation going with your kids and keep that door open.

“Knowledge is key, it gives you the power to detect potential crimes and protect you and your loved ones.”

On its website, Roblox says all parents, carers and teachers need “a little support sometimes to help them guide and empower their children and teenagers in a very different world from the one they grew up in”.

As such, it has produced some guidelines for parents.

A Roblox spokesperson said: “We never allow user-to-user image sharing, and we have strict text chat filters that block inappropriate words and phrases.

“We block user behavior that clearly indicates an attempt to get someone off our platform, including the sharing of personal information; and we proactively scan and investigate possible cases of grooming.”

Roblox also said it now offers a feature where parents can limit text chats to select contacts or turn them off altogether.

However, part of the problem is when, as in James’ case, the conversation is taken to a chat app.

For James, it was Kik, a mobile chat app founded in Canada.

Over the years it has been known for its features that preserve the confidentiality of users and investigative BBC News in 2018 suggested it had featured in 1,100 UK child sexual abuse cases investigated by the police in the previous five years.

A year later, Kik said it was shutting down – but it’s still available for download, with a version update three weeks ago announcing “Kik is here to stay”.

The BBC was unable to contact anyone at Kik Interactive for comment, but on its website it said: “We understand that our Kik users need to feel safe and respected when they use our service and we care about the safety of our users. .

“Unfortunately, inappropriate behavior is a risk with any type of communication platform.

“We designed Kik to help users manage the messages they see, and we provide tools to help.”

‘False identity’
And Kik is just one of the many chat apps and sites that can be used.

In February, Ofcom said the sexual exploitation and abuse of children online was “an ongoing and growing threat with devastating consequences for those affected”.

The NSPCC found UK police forces recorded more than 34,000 online grooming crimes against children across 150 different platforms between 2017 and 2023.

It said the risk was particularly high when offenders could abuse online features such as anonymity or where they could create false identities to manipulate children.

In October, the Online Safety Act became law. Under the Act, online services – such as social media applications, instant messaging platforms and gaming sites, as well as search engines and pornography sites – are required to take steps to better protect children online in various ways.

Outlining more than 40 steps the service must take to keep children safer, Ofcom chief executive Dame Melanie Dawes said: “We want children to enjoy life online, but for too long, their experience has been marred by seriously harmful content that they cannot avoid or control.

“In line with the new online safety laws, our proposed code firmly places responsibility for keeping children safer on tech firms.

“Our measures – which go beyond current industry standards – will provide a step change in online safety for children in the UK.

“When it comes into force, we will not hesitate to use the full range of our enforcement powers to hold the platform accountable. That’s the promise we made to children and parents.”

Roblox is one of several tech, gaming and social media companies that says it’s working to make the online world safer for kids.

A spokesperson for the company said: “We strongly believe the industry needs to work together to move the needle on security, which is why we’re actively working together across the industry to provide others with better tools to detect grooming chats.”

But James, who now struggles to trust and communicate with people online, has a warning for parents.

“You should be able to trust people, but unfortunately you can’t.”

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