SHE'S one of Britain's most beloved TV personalities, and for over two decades, Carol Vorderman has been working tirelessly to protect the nation's children online.
Following the horrific abduction and murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne in 2000, the former Countdown star campaigned to improve safety measures around the grooming of young children.
While many parents were still in the dark over the dangers of growing Internet phenomenons like chat rooms, Carol feared that they were quickly becoming a breeding ground for sex offenders.
Here, the star - who is an honorary fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology - explains why she fears history could be about to repeat itself with the rising popularity of virtual online spaces like the Metaverse.
SHORTLY after the horrific abduction and murder of Sarah Payne just over 20 years ago, there were major concerns about a new thing called ‘chat rooms’.
Parents were worried because their children, who thought they were talking to teenage boys online, were later horrified to find out they were actually adult men.
When I scratched the surface of this issue, I realised there were no laws in place to protect young people from these terrifying harms online.
A paedophile could easily pretend to be someone else, arrange to meet a child and book them into a hotel room without ANY crime having been committed until sexual assault took place.
Sarah was eight years old when she disappeared while playing in a cornfield with her two older brothers and younger sister, in Kingston Gorse, West Sussex.
Local police searches of the area quickly turned into a nationwide manhunt and tragically two weeks later, her body was found abandoned in a field 15 miles away.
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It was an abduction and murder that shocked us as a nation and deeply changed our attitudes towards child safety.
We realised legislation was needed to protect the youngest in society and fast but it seemed impossible at the time.
Academics and charities had been banging on the doors of power to ask for the protection of children online for a while. I joined them and we made campaigning documentaries about it.
Under the then-home secretary David Blunkett, we joined a task force which pass the UK's first Online Grooming act and established a protection body known as the CEOP which did incredible work in this arena for years until it was brought into the National Crime Agency. A tragedy in my view.
Back then, three years after Sarah Payne’s death, we were ahead of the game in protecting children online… but since then we have fallen backwards and we’re now having to play catch up fast.
'Terrifying damage is so real'
Today, we all know about chat rooms, but now there’s a mysterious new problem on the scene. It’s the Metaverse and unknown to parents around the country and world, a tsunami of horror is heading our way.
Instead of hiding behind a computer screen and keyboard, abusers have online avatars with hands, bodies and a physical presence in this new online world, which is brought to life through virtual reality (VR) headsets.
It’s clear social media CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg can’t be trusted with safeguarding our children and worryingly they have a large influence on the future of the Metaverse.
This new technology has extraordinary power and potential. It's unquestionable that, in a few years, we will be working and socialising inside the Metaverse.
We will walk into our virtual office, physically pull out a chair and join meetings. We will laugh and chat with our friends from the comfort of our own homes.
The Metaverse is incredibly realistic and our brains convince us that we are physically there.
I am an occasional user of VR headsets and while it’s an exciting new world with wonderful possibilities, it’s not a game. The damage it is already doing is terrifying.
Sickos 'have sex' & beat characters online
Already, there have been reports of people inside the Metaverse trying to touch adults and children inappropriately, hurling horrid abuse and posing as people they are not.
Forty-nine per cent of women who have been in VR chat rooms say they've suffered sexual abuse online.
It has an eerie similarity to what I and others fought for two decades ago.
In some sick games available in the Metaverse, paedophiles can seduce and physically abuse female characters that look like children.
There’s also a software that creates a 3D character based on photographs, who abusers can then simulate sex with or beat them up if they want to.
Up to 40 per cent of those making requests send in photos of their ex-partners, but they could use photographs of people on social media or even children.
Are they abusers in the eyes of the law right now? Currently no. There's no accountability, so anyone could be ‘uploaded’ for someone to simulate sex with and fulfill their abusive desires.
In accordance with the law, if that happens in the Metaverse a victim has not been abused and no crime has been committed.
I remember interviewing a number of adults who had been abused as children and who said that when the internet allowed those images to be uploaded they felt they were being abused all over again.
That’s why we at the Institution of Engineering and Technology are calling for laws in the real world to be applied in the Metaverse too.
'Online Safety Bill must be START not end'
I am supporting Nadine Dorries, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, in her efforts to bring the world’s first Online Safety Bill - although I am not a party political person at all.
There is nothing, yes literally nothing, in place to protect women or our children and while the legislation they have laid out is not perfect, it is a start.
As I’ve always said, it’s better to build the framework of a house and then add the furniture later.
There is a lot more that needs to be done and quickly to protect children and everyone else in preparation for the Metaverse taking over our lives.
Social media leaders' track records aren’t so hot when it comes to trying to protect people’s mental health from the vile comments made by trolls online.
Those are just words and there’s not really anything you can do if you’re targeted - unless you have a lot of money to pay an expensive lawyer.
Now, imagine the harm that could be caused in the Metaverse, where everything feels real and like you are physically there.
While it may seem like a computer game, it’s not. It's so realistic that there is even a protocol for taking off a VR headset that requires you to relax and calm down for 20 minutes.
Worryingly there’s new high-tech clothing that has sensors that can be put on pads, gloves and the suit so you can feel everything.
If someone hits you, you feel it. You can feel hot and cold. It’s so clever that you can feel the rain because your brain convinces you it’s raining.
With all of the sick people online, imagine what else that technology could be used for.
Interestingly, it speaks volumes that the Silicon Valley elite - the ones making money out of us online - choose to send their children to analogue schools, where they are banned from using phones or laptops.
If we don’t act now the Metaverse will get worse. This could be a gift to paedophiles and abusers and the horrors are just beginning.