Virtual world app warning as Lanarkshire schoolgirl is online grooming target

A child in Wishaw has been targeted in an online grooming incident through virtual world app, Zepeto.

Cops are investigating the incident reported to have taken place using the increasingly popular metaverse app, where users can design avatars either to look like themselves or be someone completely different.

Schoolteachers in the area have been alerted by police who have concerns around anonymous communication in the app and the risk that it presents for the exploitation of children and vulnerable people.

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Primarily aimed at Gen Z people – those born between 1997 and 2012 – the Zepeto app allows users to create their own 3D animated characters and visit over a thousand virtual spaces where they can meet anonymously with others from around the world.

The Wishaw pupil targeted, thought to be a girl, was introduced to the app by a school friend.

Creators of the personalized avatars in Zepeto, which was created in South Korea by Naver Z Corporation, are also able to make in-app purchases and monetize their 3D world spaces. The majority of users are female with fashion playing a huge role on the platform. More than 1.5 billion virtual fashion items are available to purchase using Zems, an in-game currency.

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With Safer Internet Day taking place just last week parents and carers are being urged to remain vigilant and check children are safe when they are online.

Teachers have been asked to remind children of the dangers of meeting unscrupulous users on the app, and to make parents aware of the possibility that its use may be widespread in Lanarkshire.

Schools were contacted by email in which comparison was drawn with Zepeto’s increase in popularity and that of Slenderman, an online horror game – although the concepts are very different.

The email urges that parents be informed about Zepeto in case it has been downloaded without their knowledge.

It added: “Stories are being told about the game on forums and app store reviews.

“These stories will draw attention from children in the same vein as Slenderman and other modern horror stories, which could result in the popularity of the app beginning to grow.”

Aaron Campbell, who was jailed for life for the abduction and murder of six-year-old Lanarkshire schoolgirl Alesha MacPhail on Bute in 2018, was said to be obsessed with Slenderman.

The perception is that the Slenderman character stalks and kidnaps children.

Zepeto, which is also known as Zaizai – a nickname for children, launched just over three years ago and has more than 250 million users. Its biggest market is China.

PC Michael Steenson of Police Scotland’s Preventions and Interventions Lanarkshire, said: “We are currently carrying out inquiries into an incident of online exploitation using an app known as Zepeto, which involved a child from the Wishaw area recently.

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“Social media is now an important part of many people’s lives but we need to keep children safe when online.

“Prevention is key and I would like to remind parents to be in control of what apps and content your child is viewing.

“We remain committed to tackling child online exploitation and anyone with any concerns should contact Police Scotland on 101.”

The Children 1st charity advises parents to use parental controls to help set limits for children’s online access.

A spokesman for North Lanarkshire Council said: “We would always urge parents and carers to chat with children on an ongoing basis about staying safe online. Internet safety advice is available on the council website for parents and carers, and for children.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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