What to Know
Roblox is a popular online gaming site for kids that boasts nearly 50 million users a month; the site lets players chat with each other
The mother of the 8-year-old boy says that chat function is apparently how a sex predator targeting her child
Warnings about Roblox predators have popped up in Canada, Britain and Australia; this appears to be the 1st case in U.S. cops are probing
The outraged mother of an 8-year-old boy is sounding the alarm about a popular online gaming site for kids, telling NBC 4 New York's I-Team she believes her son was "groomed" by a sexual predator who was lurking in the virtual adventure world.
The Louisiana boy met the alleged predator on Roblox, which boasts nearly 50 million users a month who “create adventures, play games, role-play and learn with friends.” It also allows players to chat with each other, which is how the boy was allegedly targeted.
"At the beginning [the alleged predator] portrayed himself like a child," said the mother, who requested anonymity because she fears her son could be in danger. "He would continue to find [my son] in the same games and they became play partners."
The conversations quickly escalated with questions about the boy’s school, his home address – and photos.
"He told my son he was a handsome boy," the mother said, adding she knows her son sent pictures of himself but she doesn’t know if nudity was involved. “[My son] has denied there were any pictures of him naked. Am I 100 percent sure? No. Am I afraid? Yes."
The mother filed a report with her local sheriff’s department and handed over the family iPad to investigators.
"I’m stunned this happened to my child," she said. "What they are advertising is the perfect place for pedophiles.”
The mother only discovered the situation in February after the Canadian Centre for Child Protection issued a warning about the chat feature on Roblox, one of the first such warnings about the game, and she read about it on Facebook. She then asked her son if he played.
"The Canadian Centre’s Cybertip.ca program has received reports concerning requests to meet up in person, and/or sexually suggestive chat messages being sent to children under the age of 12 within Roblox," the alert read. "Through the chat feature, children can easily be exposed to inappropriate conversations or redirected to inappropriate content on other sites.”
Similar warnings have been issued in Britain and Australia. The Louisiana mother's Roblox case appears to be the first of its kind police are investigating in the United States.
In a statement to the I-Team, Roblox said it’s working hard to keep all kids safe.
"The safety of our community is a top priority and we’re constantly assessing and improving our trust and safety measures," the Roblox statement said. "There are several safeguards in place to protect our users that utilize current technology and human oversight."
The company cited examples of "recent" updates including: parental controls so they can shut off chat capability; age visibility so that parents can easily determine that the settings for their kids are age-appropriate; more stringent chat controls for kids under 13, restricting a greater range of words; expansion of the moderation team so they can more aggressively delete games and content with behavior they don't tolerate; and further enhancement of guidelines for the developer community specifying content and and experiences not allowed in their games.
Roblox also said it will cooperate with the Louisiana investigation, but it pointed out that photo sharing is not possible on the platform so if that happened, pictures must have been transmitted some other way.
Still, it’s little comfort to the mother in Louisiana.
"I feel I failed in my duties as a mother to protect my son," she said. "I feel sick."
Sgt. Tom Rich, a New Jersey police officer and cyber safety expert, has studied Roblox and says parents should "turn off chat for everybody" in the game settings.
"You can set the profile up that you're under 13 or you’re over 13," he explained to the I-Team. "So if it's under 13, the profile has to be verified by a parent's email account and that allows you full control of the chat settings, which is good. Over 13, its customizable so the parent actually has to go in and turn things off."