Concerns about what children are exposed to online are nothing new, but this week brought to light another worrying possibility for parents.
According to a BBC investigation, Roblox, a popular online game played by children and adults, was reported to have sexually explicit rooms.
The site, which has an estimated 150 million monthly active users, allows players to upload and play games and connect with friends — or strangers — using block-like avatars.
The BBC report found some users created explicit rooms called “condo games” that may allow inappropriate conversations and activities between children and adults.
Now, the company and the report are clear: the sexually explicit spaces are not allowed on the site, and taken down quickly — “typically … within a matter of minutes,” Roblox told CBC News in a statement.
Still, experts say there are steps parents can take to both educate themselves and protect their children.
How common is this in Roblox?
Although these types of sexually explicit spaces have been found on other platforms, in the case of Roblox, experts say these types of rooms are hard to come by.
Matthew Johnson, director of education for Media Smarts in Ottawa, says a user would have to go out of their way looking for these condos in the gaming platform.
“Your child, more importantly, is not going to just stumble across these links,” he said.
In its statement, Roblox says the platform uses a combination of automated machine learning technology and moderators to remove condos.
“We have zero tolerance for sexual content or behaviour of any kind, and we take swift action against anyone found to be acting in breach of our Community Standards,” the company wrote.
Stephen Sauer, director of Cybertip for the Canadian Centre for Child Protection says even in moderated spaces, the greater risk is when children are lured away from that moderation to other gaming sites or apps.
He said his organization sees sexual victimization when predators lead children to other social media platforms or private chatrooms intended for adults.
Turn off in-game chat features
Some games include chat features, allowing players to talk in real time with others in the game.
If you’re concerned about who a child is chatting with, Johnson suggests creating separate channels or chats only with people your child knows in person within the game’s parental control settings
“You can do a video call so that it’s only the people that you actually know who can communicate, and that’s true in any kind of game, whether it is Roblox or Minecraft or Fortnite.”
Keep an eye on usage
Johnson says parents should have a hand in setting up the game and monitoring how their children are using it.
“[It’s not] just virtual babysitting where you sit the kid in front of the iPad and you finally catch up in the laundry,” he said.
“You need to try and stay engaged and be aware of what they’re doing.”
One way to do this is setting up their content filters together, allowing them to see which filters are actually in place.
And this shouldn’t be a one-time thing. Regularly check-in with your child and ask them about what they’re playing.
Understand how the game works
Dale Dietrich, a father of two in Toronto, says parents should be aware how tech-savvy their children are but also how gaming platforms work.
“If you set yourself up as an adult, then it’s going to be fully open, right? But when you set up an account for a kid, you put in their [age of] eight,” he said in reference to Roblox.
According to Roblox, it is “extremely difficult” for any stranger to contact a child under 13, and there are other chat filters that can be controlled by parents.
Having open conversations about dangers
Sauer says being safe also means having conversations with children about online sexual violence.
“When you receive an unwanted message or an unwanted picture from someone, we understand that you don’t need to respond to that, but you can block that individual.”
Having conversations about the kinds of inappropriate behaviour that can happen online will help your child spot unsafe situations that can occur, he said.