WHEN 10-year-old Aimee Healy became quiet and withdrawn, mum Tonie knew something was wrong.
Opening up her phone, the normally bubbly Year Five pupil showed Tonie vile messages sent from a stranger via her favourite computer game, Roblox.
Tonie, 34, from Lambeth, south London tells The Sun: “This person was threatening to rape and kill Aimee, saying they knew where she lived and they were going to come and burn down our house.
“I couldn’t believe it. My little girl was terrified to leave the house after playing what had seemed to be an innocuous and social game.
“I’d heard horror stories about kids being groomed by strangers online, so I made sure I knew Aimee’s passwords and put in all the safeguards I could. I checked her messages regularly."
Aimee's story comes as Digital Secretary Nadine Dorries announced a beefed up Online Safety Bill which will help protect youngsters from harmful content, such as pornography, and make it easier to hold tech giants to account.ROARSOME
Roblox, which allows users to play together and message each other online, is a popular game played by up to two thirds of nine to 12-year-olds.
After speaking to other parents, Tonie realised a character called Jennifer was approaching youngsters in the block-building game, wielding a blood-soaked knife and threatening them.
From researching "Jennifer" online, Tonie believes the character may be a man in his 30s.
Tonie says: “Aimee said ‘Jennifer’ goes around the game stabbing people, and another of her friends was frightened to go home because she’d been told someone was coming to get her.MEG-A STARS PRICE OF BEAUTY GARDENING GOD SWEET DREAMS
"She said another friend had been sent an explicit photograph.
"Aimee has a great group of friends with equally supportive parents, so I felt everything should be fine – these horror stories only happen to other kids - but I couldn’t have been more wrong.”
Tonie contacted Roblox as well as another popular kids’ game, Among Us, but hasn’t heard back. She has also deleted the games from Aimee’s phone and alerted other parents at Aimee’s school.
She contacted the police over two weeks ago about the specific threats but has not heard back.
Tonie says: “I’ve heard other parents report similar online abuse only to be told there’s nothing that can be done. As soon as you close one account, the same weirdos out there just open another.
It seems our children aren’t safe, no matter how careful we are as parents. The police seem powerless
“It seems our children aren’t safe, no matter how careful we are as parents. The police seem powerless, and the people who supposedly monitor these games don’t do anything.”
Worrying figures from UK Safer Internet Centre - a partnership of leading charities Childnet, Internet Watch Foundation and South West Grid for Learning - show over three quarters of young people who play online games have received requests from strangers.
Nearly half - 46 per cent - have been invited to meet up with a stranger in person.
Research also shows 38 per cent of young people who play online games have experienced offensive comments from other players once a week or more, and 60 per cent want to learn more about how to avoid strangers sending them requests in online games.
Other recent reports have highlighted something called 'condos’ in Roblox – spaces generated by users where avatars have virtual sex, with the usual rules for the game not applying.
Condo games are usually discovered and taken down within an hour, and Roblox says it is constantly working to remove these games.
Will Gardner, CEO and Director of the Safer Internet Centre gives his advice on what parents, carers and guardians can do to keep children safe on online games.
Kate Roberts thought she knew how to safeguard her only child, Alice, with online gaming.
The 48-year-old office worker from Billericay, Essex, says: “Having had experience of predatory men when I was growing up, I always thought I was vigilant with my 8-year-old daughter’s safety, but just over a year ago I had a massive wake-up call.”
Kate was watching Alice play Roblox on her iPad one night when messages from someone she didn’t know popped up.
I felt physically sick at the thought of someone in real time out there, some sick pervert, grooming my innocent daughter while she sat next to me on the sofa
She recalls: “The stranger asked ‘How old are you?’, and Alice typed in ‘eight’.
“The stranger then asked if Alice was a boy or a girl, to which she replied, ‘G’. Then came the message, ‘I’m bi – are you?’
"I just sat there, in shock, unable to take in what I was seeing. I felt physically sick at the thought of someone in real time out there, some sick pervert, grooming my innocent daughter while she sat next to me on the sofa.
“I’d rigorously put all the safeguards I could on the app, I knew all her passwords and still this had happened.”
Kate sent Alice to bed then replied to the stranger herself, typing: “Nice try, this is her mum and you’ve been reported to Roblox you sick pervert.”
She then deleted the app and showed her partner Matt, who was appalled.
Kate says: “The next day, I told Alice that horrible people were trying to contact her on Roblox and she couldn’t play anymore. Then I told all the mums of her friends at school, who were equally shocked.
“The makers of Roblox say it’s monitored but there are all kinds of code words these groomers use to get around it, like Alice did with typing out the individual letters to spell out her age.”
Kate had another worrying experience with an app called Animal Jam, in which she claims a stranger asked Alice if she could change their nappy.
She says: “Now I only allow her to play Cookie Run Kingdom and Fortnite but I have all her passwords and check her messages every single night.
“I can’t overstate how concerned parents need to be now. You can’t assume that applying the parental controls means your child is safe.”
Will Gardner, CEO and Director of Childnet, says the challenges they face to keep young people safe online are “unprecedented" and that parental safeguards in games like Roblox "might not be working".
He says: "Online gameplay between strangers can be respectful and safe, but it can also present real risks, especially where those interactions involve minors and extend to invitations to meet up offline, in real life.
"If something seems wrong, there are lots of organisations there to support parents and their families, such as reportharmfulcontent.com, which can help with issues such as cyberbullying, impersonation and threats.
I can’t overstate how concerned parents need to be now. You can’t assume that applying the parental controls means your child is safe
"It’s vital that any worrying behaviour towards children is reported immediately to Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) or Childnet to protect your own child and others from abuse."
Dr Rachel O’Connell, founder and CEO of TrustElevate, a child age verification and data privacy platform, adds: "As we've seen reported, the systems used to track and take inappropriate games offline simply aren't working, leaving children vulnerable to sexually explicit material.
"The data algorithms used by popular games to recommend in-game play also facilitate the contact recommendation systems. Adults no longer need to search extensively for children online to groom as these algorithms will recommend users to one another."
A Roblox spokesperson told The Sun: “We have zero tolerance for sexual or threatening behaviour of any kind, and we take swift action against anyone found to be acting in breach of our Community Standards.
“We conduct a safety review of every single image, video and audio file uploaded to Roblox, using a combination of human and machine detection. There are parental control tools which can limit the content children can access.