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I-TEAM | Ambushed by images: Pornography ads on kids’ video games

Published: Oct. 11, 2021 at 7:02 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) – A mother is sounding the alarm after her child was ambushed by pornography ads.

Our I-Team’s Meredith Anderson uncovered these porn pop-ups could find your children, too. Both families and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation want to make sure you talk to your children before this happens in your house.

It almost looked like a commercial for a movie, but this is the trailer for a popular video game called “Asphalt 8: Airborne.” Also popular is the price.

The ad says you can “download now for free,” but this mother we’ll call Bodie says her family paid a steep price, thanks to a head-on collision with another kind of ad.

“We had all the parental blocks that we could imagine on his tablet to make it safe. We held out for years giving them tablets, because he knew the dangers that came with them,” she said.

When the danger of COVID kept her kids home, it was virtually impossible for her kids to learn virtually without a tablet. With the mom and dad’s permission, their 7-year-old also started virtually racing, too, until things got way too racy.

“All of the sudden, he did this. His eyes got really big, and he put it to his chest,” described Bodie. “My husband took the tablet, and he looked, and, sure enough, it was pornography. Very explicit. He said it was like a collage of very explicit pictures all over my son’s tablet.”

It wasn’t part of the game. It was part of an ad for an adult website. “They were graphic and violent,” remembered Bodie. The ads were popping up on a game considered appropriate for kids as young as 10.

The I-Team checked, and it’s rated “E” for everyone on the Google app store. Apple says ages 12-plus, but only because of “frequent/intense cartoon or fantasy violence.” Basically the only warning is for car crashes.

“It was heartbreaking. I was in tears. I was angry. Meredith, I had this righteous anger,” Bodie added, “And I wasn’t angry at my son. I was angry at the people who are victimizing the kids.”

Meredith Anderson asked the GBI if it’s feasible for a child to be doing nothing wrong and all of a sudden this inappropriate content ambushes them.

“Yeah. I mean, it happens to adults,” said Charles Kicklighter GBI assistant special agent in charge at the Georgia Cyber Center. “Nothing’s 100% safe.”

He has devoted most of his career to keeping kids safe from online predators.

“It’s not just Atlanta or Savannah, you know, New York, it’s here. I can go online now. And probably by this afternoon or tonight, I have a couple of people that are wanting to meet,” he said.

Pop-ups are just the start. Kicklighter says curious kids click on these links, earning those websites money. The images can also desensitize them to sexual content, possibly making them easier targets when a predator strikes up a conversation in a game chat.

“That’s all they do. They’re great at play in these games. They know how to talk to the children. Like talk the talk, walk the walk.” Which Kicklighter says can lead unsuspecting kids to continue the conversation on other apps, where the chat becomes private and pictures and videos are then exchanged.

The I-Team crunched the most recent data and found 98 percent of those who try to entice children online are complete strangers.

In real life, 93 percent of child sex victims know their perpetrator. Meaning the real stranger danger is alive and well on internet playgrounds.

Kicklighter says parents can be in denial.

“I’ve had them where the father would say, well, she wears pull-ups. And tell him I know, because she’s wearing pull-ups in a video, and she takes them off, and then they’re just like, ‘Oh, my God, how did they learn how to do that?’”

Parents, you might recognize the game “Roblox.” It has almost 200 million monthly active users and 67% are under the age of 16. It’s made headlines from the U.S. to the U.K. for sexual predators finding and victimizing children through chat rooms on the app. Same goes for “Fortnite,” which has even more active users every month.

But Kicklighter says that doesn’t mean we have to pull the plug. “I would tell parents turn off, turn off the chat feature.”

As for Bodie and her husband, they grabbed the steering wheel as soon as they could, using the porn pop-up experience to talk to their children and replace negative images with information about healthy relationships.

“We don’t want them going to children to other teenagers, other influences social media, what it may be, we want them to come to us, first and foremost as mom and dad to have the open communication and honesty.”

Bodie says it was important her son didn’t feel shame, but it’s also important parents don’t feel shame.

“There’s a sense of, ‘Oh no, it’s my fault. I let my son or daughter play in this tablet, use this game, and it’s popped up, and I don’t want people to think that I’m a bad parent.’”

Instead, she hopes she’s doing a lot of good by warning your family –– to make sure you remain in the driver’s seat. The I-Team reached out to Gameloft – the developer of “Asphalt 8: Airborne,” who sent this statement:

“Thank you for for reaching out to me about this concerning complaint from this customer and their family. We strongly encourage our customers go to Gameloft’s Customer Care to voice their concerns and allow us to take action and enforce our advertising policies. Gameloft Customer Care can be found here: https://support.gameloft.com.”

As for this specific complaint, Gameloft follows industry norms of using programmatic advertisements, meaning we work with advertising partners to create a blocklist of content that might otherwise be advertised. We also utilize an in-game age-gate to make sure content shown in these advertisements match our standards for our customers, as well as a 24/7 Quality Assurance team vetting advertising content that shows up in our games. Whenever an advertisement “slips through” and is reported to us, we investigate and ask the relevant partner to block that ad creative from that game. We are currently vetting the advertisements in this specific game to manually see what ad this customer encountered.

Unfortunately, we don’t have further insight into the specific advertisement this customer encountered without them contacting us. We take this issue very seriously, and we are extremely surprised this happened.

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