- Facebook’s recent rebranding to Meta has thrust sci-fi preconceptions of the metaverse into mainstream media.
- Whilst augmented and virtual worlds offer an unlimited number of possibilities, the risks related to exposure, especially in children, are widely unknown.
- It’s important that parents understand what exactly ‘metaverse’ means, and any potential risks for children’s neurodevelopment.
In the week since Facebook announced its name change to Meta, the metaverse has been thrust from science fiction obscurity into the mainstream spotlight, leading Wall Street analysts, politicians, and privacy advocates to make it a part of their vocabulary.
But while many now know what the metaverse is—broadly, immersive digital experiences accessed through virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (VR) devices—its cultural import and how it may change our behaviors is less clear. This is particularly true with regard to the most vulnerable new metaverse initiates—children.
Due to the metaverse’s immersive interface and virtual interactions with other users, along with largely non-uniform user safety policies across services, the technology represents a myriad of unknowns for families with young children.
Protecting children in the metaverse will need to go beyond warning labels
Roblox is one of the most popular gaming environments for children with over 150 million users, half of whom are under 13 years old. It serves games on traditional gaming and VR formats, where it filters chats for inappropriate language, and vigorously moderates the site for behavior that violates its guidelines.
Still, this approach hasn’t become the norm in the metaverse. With Facebook the early leader in metaverse technologies, it’s likely to be the portal into the space for many parents and children. But for Oculus, Facebook’s VR app platform, the safety page simply states, “While we know that children under 13 may want to use Oculus devices, we do not permit them to create accounts or use Oculus devices.”
However, no direct identification or age verification is required. Instead, the company relies on the fact that users need a Facebook account—which requires them to be at least 13 years old—to use Oculus. This minor hurdle can easily be bypassed by a child using a shared family Facebook account, or a parent gifting the device and simply giving access to the child through their own account. Given recent revelation’s about how Facebook engages with young people, parents may be understandably cautious about allowing children to enter its virtual worlds.
Violent video games played on consoles like XBox and PlayStation have warning labels that give parents some sense of awareness and control. Developers of games for the metaverse have adopted the same Entertainment Software Association (ESRB) warning labels common on traditional console and mobile video, games. But when all metaverse games are stored in the cloud, with labels often only visible to the children downloading them, the ability to monitor a child’s content diet becomes even more challenging.
Everything on the internet can be the metaverse, but it’s not that simple
As parents attempt to guide their families into a safety-first version of the metaverse, it might be helpful to understand what games are actually in the immersive component of the metaverse.
Any attempt to apply a rigid definition for what is and isn’t “metaverse” is tricky because it’s more of an abstract concept that continues to evolve rather than a finite destination. “The metaverse is the Internet, enhanced and upgraded to consistently deliver 3D content, spatially organized information and experiences, and real-time synchronous communication,” wrote 3D internet pioneer Tony Parisi in his recent essay “The Seven Rules of the Metaverse.”
So, in theory, when Take-Two Interactive’s CEO Strauss Zelnick appeared on CNBC this week and referred to the company’s existing roster of non-VR, non-AR games like Grand Theft Auto as part of the metaverse, technically, he’s right. “If one were then to ask about 2D or non-spatialized content in the metaverse, ‘how is this different from the web?’ one reply would be: ‘It is web content, experienced in the metaverse,’” says Parisi, outlining the distinction.
Using Parisi’s framework, the metaverse has been here for some time and is just now receiving mainstream attention as it moves into new, more immersive platforms like VR and AR. Over time, many parents have become familiar with popular 3D gaming worlds, played on non-immersive flat screen-based console systems and mobile devices.
Some non-immersive gaming and social experiences, like Animal Crossing: New Horizons enable users to build virtual communities and share them with friends. Increasingly, some of these 2D social and gaming apps are moving into the realms of VR and AR as immersive versions of the games. In apps like Microsoft’s AltspaceVR, Facebook’s Horizons Workrooms, and Spatial, users without a VR headset and just a desktop PC or laptop can engage with fully immersed VR headset users, offering a kind of window into the immersive metaverse.
What’s unique about the 2021 iteration of the metaverse is that it includes fully immersive 3D VR and AR worlds that transcend screen viewing by putting the user inside the game spatially. This is an entirely new and more personal experience that, according to a 2019 study (pdf) conducted by Facebook, can impact how bullying, harassment, and lewd content, as well as positive content, are experienced by users in the metaverse.
Previous research, conducted in 2008 by Thomas Baumgartner, a neuroscientist at the University of Zurich, found distinct differences in how adult brains process VR versus the brains of children. “Adults appear to control and regulate their [VR] presence experience by critically evaluating and monitoring the presented [virtual environment] stimuli…Children on the other hand did not, or at least to a greatly reduced extent,” Baumgartner’s research team wrote. “One consequence might be that one should be more reluctant to expose children to emotional virtual stimuli as currently practiced.”
Stanford professor Jeremy Bailenson, who has conducted his own research into the effects of VR on children, also suggests the metaverse is a completely different challenge compared to monitoring the effects of console video games on children.
“Film or television or a video watched on a tablet may convey sounds and sights captured from the ‘real world,’ but when we interact with these media we are almost always aware of their artificiality. They are coming to us from screens…or devices held in our hands,” writes Bailenson in his 2018 book on VR, Experience on Demand. “But VR engulfs us…We slide occluding goggles over our eyes and cover our ears with headphones, overriding our two primary sense systems with simulated digital signals…VR is the apotheosis of every media fear and fantasy we’ve ever had.”
Parents need to be aware of what their kids and playing and who they are playing with
To some degree, we’ve been here before, as lawmakers have repeatedly examined the effect of video games on children. In those cases, the 2D screen-based gaming console dynamic shielded the player from the full spectrum of the game’s 3D world. But what happens when you virtually immerse the player’s entire body into the game, giving users the spatial sense that they are actually inhabiting the fictional world around them?
“When compared to the non-immersive VR condition (watching…a television screen), children in VR showed a significant deficit in inhibitory control,” writes Bailenson. “How children react to media is of particular concern because their prefrontal cortex, the area that is associated with emotion and behavior regulation, is not completely developed.”
That is one of the central challenges facing the metaverse—immersion to such a degree that reality and fantasy are blurred to an extent that the cultural impacts of traditional 2D console gaming may pale in comparison.
“It’s Fortnite on steroids,” Michigan State University media professor Rabindra Ratan told Quartz . “It’s already hard to monitor what your kids are doing, but at least you can look over their shoulder at a screen. When they’re in VR, they’re blocked off, you can’t really see what they’re doing. Parents need to understand kids’ games, what they’re playing, why they’re playing them, who they’re playing them with. You have to be an informed consumer right along with them.”
As families transition along with Facebook and other Big Tech companies from traditional online interactions to fully immersive metaverse experiences, having a better handle on the differences can help parents better navigate this often mysterious landscape as it evolves.
Here’s how some of the most popular gaming and social platforms that offer metaverse experiences:
Social metaverse apps
How will VR and AR experiences impact children?Image: Unsplash/XR Expo