Laws Can't Protect Kids From Online Game Abuse

Around 200,000 young Australians have been abused or cyberbullied while playing online games in the past 12 months.

Law enforcement is essentially powerless to stop the type of horrific incident experienced by a seven-year-old American girl, where her avatar in the popular online game Roblox was "gang-raped" by other characters.

North Carolina mum Amber Petersen was horrified last week when her daughter showed her the game she was playing -- Roblox, a cartoon-style gaming platform that lets users build not only their own characters, but even their own games that others can join.

Petersen's seven-year-old daughter was confused by something happening on the screen, and asked her mum what was going on.

"At first, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. My sweet and innocent daughter’s avatar was being VIOLENTLY GANG-RAPED ON A PLAYGROUND by two males,"  Petersen claimed, in a Facebook that has gone viral.

"A female observer approached them and proceeded to jump on her body at the end of the act. Then the 3 characters ran away, leaving my daughter’s avatar laying on her face in the middle of the playground."

Screenshots posted by Petersen (Facebook)

She posted screenshots from the game as evidence, including one where one character was holding the head of her daughter's avatar and another character with a crude visualisation of a penis.

"Words cannot describe the shock, disgust, and guilt that I am feeling right now," Petersen wrote.

"I am shuddering to think of what kind of damage this image could have on [my daughter's] psyche, as well as any other child that could potentially be exposed to this."

Screenshots posted by Petersen (Facebook)

The post gathered dozens of shocked comments, with several parents saying they would ban their children from playing the game.

Roblox claims to be "the largest user-generated online gaming platform" and "the #1 gaming site for kids and teens", with 15 million games created by players.

It also bills itself as a "family-friendly" site. It is unclear how the character managed to recreate a penis in the game Petersen's daughter was playing.

In a statement, Roblox said it had taken quick action.

"We have identified how this bad actor created the offending action and are putting additional safeguards in place to reduce the possibility of this happening again in the future," the company said.

Screenshots posted by Petersen - she said her daughter's character was left "laying on her face in the middle of the playground" (Facebook)

"The offender was identified and has been permanently banned from the platform and we have suspended the game. We have zero tolerance for this behavior."

But while the incident would rightly outrage and horrify parents, Australian authorities have little power to stop this sort of thing happening, federal eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant said.

Her office said around 200,000 young Australians have been abused or cyberbullied while playing online games in the past 12 months.

"Laws can certainly have a role to play in addressing abusive conduct online, but we will never be able to arrest our way out of the problems we’re facing with online safety. These are social, behavioural issues playing out in the technological sphere, so we need to look at ways of shifting the culture behind these behaviours," Inman Grant told ten daily.

"In order to better prevent abusive behaviours occurring in online platforms, we need to encourage and incentivise industry to embed safety by design into the development process -- at the outset, before a new app or product is released."

Parents need to be smart in keeping kids safe online (Reuters)

Dr Kate Raynes-Goldie, engagement intelligence expert and founder of Future Human Academy, said the nature of the internet meant law enforcement faced high difficulties in policing such abuse in games.

"Generally the first point of appeal is the platform to regulate. Like Twitter or Facebook, because it’s so international, the nature of the internet means it may be difficult to get police to intervene," she told ten daily.

"Parents shouldn’t just trust that companies will take care of their kids. They need to teach their kids to be smart online and educate themselves as well."

Inman Grant said Roblox was part of a group of companies to sign up to an Australian cyberbullying scheme, committing to working with the government to address online issues. However, she too said parents needed to speak to children about abuse and violence online.

eSafety commissioner Julie Inman Grant (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

"The first thing to do is talk to your kids about what they’re doing online and keep an open conversation about what apps they’re using, what they’re seeing and experiencing," she said.

"We also encourage parents to download and play the games their kids are playing, or spend some time playing online with your kids, so you get a good idea about what the game involves."

"We also encourage parents to investigate what the privacy and security settings are on the apps and games their children are using. Make sure both you and your child know how to do things like disable chat functions to stop or prevent abuse or cyberbullying."

Parents can also access the eSafety Commissioner's iParent portal, with latest safety information on games and apps.