An undercover researcher posing as a 13-year-old girl has exposed "dangerous" Metaverse app that allows children to enter virtual strip clubs, view simulated sex, and experience exposure to a number of inappropriate and "unspeakable" topics.
BBC News researcher Jess Sherwood created a fake profile to set up an account, where her real identity was not checked, and used an app with a minimum age rating of 13.
In VRchat, the researcher was able to visit virtual-reality rooms where 3D avatars were seen simulating sex. She was shown sex toys and condoms, and said she was approached by numerous adult men.
While not created by Meta itself, the app can be downloaded from an App Store on the Meta Quest headset, previously known as the Oculus Quest. The app has no age verification checks, and only requires the person to have a Facebook account.
While not all VRchat rooms contain explicit content, some are McDonald’s restaurants, other rooms include pole dancing and strip clubs, with children being able to freely mingle with adults with little checks on age restricted content.
Sherwood said some of the rooms felt "similar to what you might see in the red light district in Amsterdam or in the more seedy parts of London's Soho at night."
According to the BBC, one man told the researcher that avatars can "get naked and do unspeakable things." Others talked about "erotic role-play".
The researcher also experienced grooming behaviors, racist insults, and a rape threat during her time in the app.
Catherine Allen, who runs the consultancy Limina Immersive and is currently writing a report about VR for the Institute of Engineering and Technology, said her team has found many of the experiences in VR "fun and surreal," while other experiences have been "quite traumatized and disturbing."
Allen described one incident where she encountered a seven-year-old girl in a Meta-owned app.
"A group of men surrounded them both and joked about raping them. Ms Allen said she had to step between the men and the child to protect her," the BBC reported.
"I shouldn't have had to do that, but that's because there's no moderation, or apparently very little moderation," Allen said.
In response to the BBC’s investigation, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children said they were "shocked and angry" at the findings.
"It's children being exposed to entirely inappropriate, really incredibly harmful experiences," said Andy Burrows, head of online child safety policy.
Burrows believes tech companies like Meta have learned little from the initial creation of social media platforms and the mistakes it brought.
"This is a product that is dangerous by design, because of oversight and neglect. We are seeing products rolled out without any suggestion that safety has been considered," he said.
Dame Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner for England, told the Daily Mail that she was "really horrified" by what she saw and was angry that safety measures had not been built in.
"I’m really concerned that Meta hasn't made their metaverse safe by design - we have an Age Appropriate Design Code - and I expected better of them," she said.
"Are you telling me that Mark Zuckerberg, with all his fantastic engineers and ability to create this, can't keep children safe?" She continued. "That's my challenge to the social media companies and they should be stepping up now."
Earlier in February, the British government announced that websites publishing porn will be legally required to verify the age of the viewers under the Online Safety Bill.
The Commissioner said that she would like to see these "age gates" used more broadly.
"I’ve been bringing the tech companies in to meet with me to get them to act more quickly and ensure that children can be safe online - they need to be as safe online as they are offline - and if I was a parent watching this, I'd be really worried," she said.
"That's why I'm arguing for age verification, so that children are only getting age-appropriate experiences, that's got to be embedded in this," she continued. "But in terms of the (social media) companies, they need to do more, they need to step up."
"We're constantly pushing them on this, the legislation hopefully will make a real difference," she added. "We'll have proper age gates and force these companies to only give age-appropriate material to children. They know how old they are - they're so advanced - they know our children and they need a moral compass here."