New research from experts at the IET has predicted that the next generation of children will spend approximately 10 years in VR over the course of their lifetime – or around 2 hours 45 minutes per day.
This 10-year figure (calculated as being 2 hours 45 minutes of metaverse use per day over the median projected lifespan of today’s children being 88.75 years = 10.16 calendar years) supports the IET’s groundbreaking new ‘Safeguarding the Metaverse’ report, which explores both the opportunities and potential harms of the new digital realm.
The report has been launched to coincide with the latest reading in Parliament of the UK government’s new Online Safety Bill. The long-awaited, much-delayed bill passed its second reading today (20 April). The IET’s report was co-authored by Catherine Allen, Limina Immersive and Verity McIntosh from the University of the West of England.
The IET is calling on politicians and policy makers to ensure comprehensive measures for regulating activity taking place within VR and the metaverse are included within the final Bill – a major gap which has implications for online safety such as harassment and abuse.
Despite the ‘metaverse’ being a relatively new term, a new virtual reality is undoubtedly on the horizon. Meta’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg has stated his goal of achieving one billion users by 2030 – hence the pre-emptive change of his parent company name from Facebook to Meta Inc last year – and other Silicon Valley giants such as Google and Microsoft are also investing heavily in this space.
However, the IET’s new research reveals almost two-thirds (62 per cent) of parents of children aged 5-10 don’t currently understand the metaverse, highlighting the need to safeguard this new space to ensure our young people are able to safely enjoy the myriad experiences and educational advantages it could offer them.
Despite this lack of understanding and, importantly, regulation, Brits are already beginning to explore this new online world. In 2021, the percentage of UK adults who had experienced VR more than doubled, rising from 10 per cent in January 2021 to 22 per cent in December 2021, according to research by Limina Immersive.
The IET study also reveals that more than a fifth of 5 to 10-year-olds (21 per cent) already have a VR headset of their own or have asked for a similar tech present for their birthday or Christmas. Further, 15 per cent of them were recorded as saying they have already tried VR, while 6 per cent said they use it on a regular basis.
Despite children taking their first steps in this new form of media, there is apprehension from parents as well as a lack of knowledge. Only 1 in 10 (10 per cent) parents feel comfortable letting their child explore the metaverse through VR without supervision. Of those parents whose children already interact with VR, over a quarter (26 per cent) admitted they did not know what their child was accessing in this new virtual world, underlining the need for robust safeguarding to be introduced.
The IET’s report suggests that these parents’ fears aren’t misplaced; even existing VR users say this virtual world currently feels like an “unsafe wild west” – a situation that urgently needs addressing. In order to make the metaverse a safe space for the next generation, legislation must be future-proofed to protect the liberties, rights and privacy of all its users, the IET study concludes.
Catherine Allen, co-author of the IET’s new report, a member of the IET’s Digital Policy Panel and CEO of VR consultancy Limina Immersive, said: “Through our research, we estimate that the next generation will spend around ten years of their lives in VR. This figure alone illustrates the impact that this technology will have on the lives of today’s children.
“Immersive technologies have limitless potential and endless opportunities but with this also come risks and threats. It’s integral that the safety, privacy and rights of end users are protected.
“Today, the UK has a golden opportunity to use its democratic processes to shape the future of the next major form of media: immersive technologies and the metaverse. Not only will this help protect adults and children from future harms in years to come, but it will also bring about wider societal rewards. People must feel safe in digital spaces in order to really harness the potential.”
Supporting the IET’s call to government, and campaigning for new legislation on the metaverse to be introduced, is child safety advocate and IET Honorary Fellow Carol Vorderman MBE. Vorderman said: “We are approaching the start of a dramatic transformation that will impact the lives of people across the world, similarly as we did 20 years ago with the then-new technology of the internet and issues around online safety.
“At the time I worked alongside other campaigners and the Home Secretary David Blunkett on the law to make grooming online an illegal act. With the new digital universe approaching fast, I believe its integration with the lives of young people will be monumental and bring about new issues around sexual harassment and abuse.
“Young people should be able to use these new innovations safely and their parents or care-givers must also feel confident to let them get the most out of this incredible technology.
“Whilst I hugely welcome the Online Safety Bill and support Secretary of State Nadine Dorries, I believe it must go further to future-proof technologies of tomorrow. By ensuring the metaverse is explicitly included, hopefully in the final Bill, if not through secondary legislation, the UK government will be able to take a position of leadership in this important space, protecting children and allowing them to learn, socialise and eventually even work safely in this exciting new frontier of the digital world.”
Verity McIntosh, senior lecturer in virtual and extended realities at the University of the West of England Bristol and a co-author of the IET’s report, added: “The ‘metaverse’ offers enormous potential for creativity, commerce and community. However, as technology continues to outpace legislation, it is imperative that we learn the lessons of 20th-century media and the early internet. This report is designed to support the development of appropriate systems of governance and regulation, including a fit-for-purpose Online Safety Bill, that will empower users and ensure that human rights are protected, everywhere.”
The IET’s report offers three recommendations that governments can introduce to shape the future of the metaverse:
- Future-proofing the Online Safety Bill – While the Online Safety Bill does apply to immersive technologies and the metaverse, it needs some adaptations to make it properly fit for purpose, rather than an afterthought. The bill is currently focused on content that is published rather than activity that happens. In the metaverse, activity happens in real time. The bill must be adapted to work well in these live, active contexts that are more akin to real-life events.
- Encouraging a positive, healthy metaverse culture – In the case of the metaverse and immersive technologies, user-driven safety features aimed at addressing harassment and abuse are not enough. The solutions being offered by technology companies for user safety, for instance the block and mute feature, are primarily instigated by the victim. By the time a victim has found the block, mute and report button, the psychological damage has often already been done. Technology companies must be incentivised to address these issues of harassment and abuse at their core – addressing the culture of these spaces – rather than placing the onus onto victims.
- Fast-tracking immersive literacy in policy makers, regulators and politicians – A wide range of VR users say the metaverse feels like an unsafe wild west. This needs addressing. Governments, politicians and policy makers must be aware of these immersive technologies and the activity that occurs on these immersive platforms. Without this awareness, decisions will either be made in the dark, or not at all. Decision makers must experience VR and spend some time in the metaverse. The IET will offer support and access to equipment to support this development of immersive literacy.
The IET report – ‘Safeguarding the metaverse’ – is available as a free download online.