February 24, 2022 - 7:30am

The metaverse, the ‘future of the internet’, has already proven itself to be a paradise for perverts and sexual predators. There are stories of users being virtually gang-rapedmasturbated at and harassed. There are no age verification checks, leaving children free to mix with adults, and making exploitation inevitable. One NSPCC researcher posing as a 13-year-old girl witnessed grooming, sexual material, racist insults and rape threats; she was invited into a virtual strip club, shown sex toys and condoms, and watched avatars simulate sex.

It’s easy to label the metaverse dystopian — a technological nightmare of unfiltered human depravity run by Silicon Valley supreme leaders who are more interested in profit than protecting minors. But the problem with calling it dystopian is that it creates a false sense of distance. A dystopia is only an imagined state, often in the far future, a hypothetical manifestation of society’s fears and anxieties.

Yet we are already living in a world dominated by technologies that are designed to be as addictive, anonymous and dangerous as possible. Take the example of Yubo, a social media app terrifyingly nicknamed ‘Tinder for teens’, which has almost 4 million users. One undercover reporter, posing as a 15-year-old girl, was frequently asked to send nude pictures, propositioned for sex, witnessed rape threats, heard discussions about suicide and saw a black girl being asked if she could be called a “dirty little slave”. Only last week a convicted sex offender locked a 14-year-old girl in a car and sexually assaulted her after meeting her on a Yubo livestream only hours earlier.

Or the example of Roblox, a crossover between a social media platform and an online gaming service, where users can create and play games together. By its own figures, 67% of its users are under the age of 16, 29% are between 9- and 12-years-old and 25% are under 9. Yet Roblox is full of sex games, called ‘condos’. Even legitimate games include inappropriate sexual language, and the safety features simply can’t keep up.

Other people may think twice about having children because of climate change, but personally I am far more terrified about protecting future children from these digital threats. As a teacher and form tutor, I see everyday the relentless battles parents have with their teenagers over technology: the 13-year-old who became so angry when his phone was confiscated that he would hurl things across the room; the 17-year-old who spent so much time online during lockdown that he wasn’t eating, sleeping, or leaving the house; the 11-year-old who confessed to me that he was being sent hardcore porn over his class WhatsApp group.

The metaverse may seem shiny and new, but it is simply a different medium for dangers that already exist and we already ignore. One of the key aspects of any dystopia is the normalisation of the previously unacceptable, and yet we already see this desensitisation everywhere. We are bringing children up in a world where it is ‘normal’ for almost half of female MPs to be sent online death and rape threats; ‘normal’ for girls to be asked for nudes by up to 11 boys a night; ‘normal’ for self-harm to be ‘revered’ on social media and a third of grooming cases to be conducted on Instagram. The dystopia is already here.

Kristina Murkett is a freelance writer and English teacher.