Virtual reality tech appearing in child abuse image crime reports for first time

Paedophiles are starting to use virtual reality headsets to view child abuse images, crime records suggest.

Children’s charity the NSPCC obtained 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 offences involving obscene images of children in 2021/22, the highest number ever logged by forces in England and Wales.

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

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

Sir Peter Wanless
NSPCC chief executive Sir Peter Wanless said the figures are ‘the tip of the iceberg’ (Jon Challicom/NSPCC/PA)

The NSPCC is asking for amendments to the Online Safety Bill to create a child safety advocate to represent the interests of children and families.

It also wants changes to the law to mean senior managers of social media sites are held criminally liable if children are exposed to preventable abuse.

Sir Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, said: “These new figures are incredibly alarming but reflect just the tip of the iceberg of what children are experiencing online.

“We hear from young people who feel powerless and let down as online sexual abuse risks becoming normalised for a generation of children.

“By creating a child safety advocate that stands up for children and families the Government can ensure the Online Safety Bill systemically prevents abuse.

“It would be inexcusable if in five years’ time we are still playing catch-up to pervasive abuse that has been allowed to proliferate on social media.”

A Government spokesperson said: “Protecting children is at the heart of the Online Safety Bill and we have included tough, world-leading measures to achieve that aim while ensuring the interests of children and families are represented through the Children’s Commissioner.

“Virtual reality platforms are in scope and will be forced to keep children safe from exploitation and remove vile child abuse content. If companies fail to tackle this material effectively, they will face huge fines and could face criminal sanctions against their senior managers.”

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

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

“We lead the industry in the development and use of technology to prevent and remove this content, and we work with the police, child safety experts and industry partners to tackle this societal issue.

“Our work in this area is never done, and we’ll continue to do everything we can to keep this content off our apps.”