Is Roblox really dangerous for kids?

This post is a guest blog from Family Zone. Developed to meet the challenge of enabling kids to get the best out of the digital world while protecting them from harm, Family Zone’s mission is to create environments where children can thrive.

How dangerous is Roblox, really? ____Like so much else in the digital world, the answer is a definitive “that depends.”

There’s so much to love about Roblox - and if you have a child who’s obsessed with this hugely popular free-to-play multiplayer realm, you already know a lot about the positives. Creativity, team-building, problem-solving, focus, persistence … and let’s not forget fun. Tons of it, in fact.

But there’s another side to the Roblox story that you may have heard about too. Like the news story about the little girl whose avatar was ‘raped’ by three male strangers. Or the fact that YouTube is chockablock with videos of Roblox porn hacks and other disturbing content recorded straight off the game.

Then there’s the ever-present spectre of online chat, with obscene language, racial and sexist slurs somehow making through despite filtering and moderation.

How does Roblox work?

But before we look at some of these dangers, let’s have a closer look at how Roblox works, because it’s the kind of online space that confounds the expectations of anyone who has grown up with traditional online gaming.

One reason Roblox seems to be many things to many people is that it really IS many things to many people. Roblox is not a “game” or even a “world” but rather a space for users to create and host their own games and virtual worlds. Some of these creations follow familiar game-playing structures. Others are totally bizarre and out there. The only thing they all have in common is their Lego-like graphics.

So Roblox is many things - but it’s also played by many, many people. A lot of them are children, just having fun building, exploring and connecting. But a lot of others are older teens and adults, whose motives may be totally innocent or totally terrifying.

There is also a profit motive at work in Roblox, as creators of popular games are compensated with a cut of purchases. (Yes, in case you were wondering, there are in-app purchases on Roblox, using the digital currency called Robux - which is another cause for nervousness.) In 2018, Roblox announced it would be paying out $70 million to content creators.

And keep in mind that Roblox’ user-base is not only diverse in age and geographic region. It is huge. With more than 100 million active players around the world, its popularity has surpassed even Minecraft’s.

Risks and safeguards

The risk that goes along with all of these features - many of which are genuinely impossible to control - is why Family Zone cyber experts, along with the Australian Council on Children and Media, have rated Roblox as suitable for 16+ only.

All of that said, Roblox is more aware and more proactive than most developers when it comes to cyber-safety.

Built-in controls which guard against bad behaviour include a content filter and a system that has moderators reviewing images, video and audio files before they’re uploaded to the site. It also features parental controls that let adults decide who, if anyone, can chat with their kids. Mums and dads can also restrict kids under 13 from accessing anything but a curated list of age-appropriate games.

The problem is, none of these safeguards is foolproof.

As one high school student explained to an online forum about the issue, “Auto chat filters can be bypassed or are too sensitive allowing trolls to use them to their advantage, baiting people into saying words close to a banned word” to trick the algorithm into removing bans.

And experienced hackers can get through even the most sophisticated moderation and the tightest privacy settings, as the mother of the seven-year-old ‘rape’ victim learned to her horror. A technologically savvy teacher, she had set her daughter’s account to the highest level of privacy, blocking conversations and invitations. And she always monitored her play. In fact, she was sitting right beside her child when the incident occurred.

As for the YouTube content, the company submits takedown requests when it is made aware of them, but claims the video-sharing site only takes action in a fraction of cases.

Roblox is responding responsibly … and yet

Roblox is struggling to cope with these safety issues - especially because legislation protecting children’s online privacy prevents it from collecting data on users. Unfortunately, that also renders it powerless to track down hackers.

“I think that we’re not the only one pondering the challenges of this. I think every platform company out there is struggling with the same thing,” notes Tami Bhaumik, head of marketing and community safety at Roblox.

“We’re not defensive if things have ever gone wrong,” adds Laura Higgins, a British child-safety veteran hired by Roblox in January 2019 as its ‘director of digital civility’. “We hold our hands up and say, ‘This is what we’ve done to fix it, and this is what we’re doing to make sure it never happens again.’”

But Higgins also admits, “It’s an age-old thing: if people have bad intentions towards children, they’re going to gravitate towards where the children are.”

If your child plays Roblox, consider the following tips to keep them safe:

Check for third-party chat apps. Predators can find a way to communicate with kids who are on Roblox even if mum and dad have turned messaging off - by using third-party chat apps that look like they’re part of the game. So always check up on your child’s gaming, no matter how strict the settings you’ve created. And most importantly, be sure your child understands to leave a game immediately and report to you if contacted by a stranger or asked to share images or personal info.

Keep an eye out for creepy avatars. Believe it or not, Roblox “sex rooms” exist, and kids can be invited in if in-game parental controls permit. Your child may also be exposed to avatars that have been programmed to perform sexually. It’s sick, but it happens.

Monitor YouTube searching. As noted above, Roblox players routinely screen-record their games and upload them to YouTube - including those that feature sex and violence. Code words like “shex” instead of “sex” are used to evade filters.

Limit play using Family Zone. Family Zone’s strong, flexible parental controls empower you to put boundaries around your child’s Roblox activity, with a dedicated control that lets you decide when and where - or if - your child is permitted to play.