Last October, Facebook announced that it was rebranding itself “Meta.” The name change is a nod to the metaverse that founder Mark Zuckerman believes is the “the next chapter for the internet.”
If you are still struggling to keep up with the current chapter, you are not alone. Many people, especially parents, are wondering what the heck a metaverse is and, more importantly, if it will be a safe place for children to visit.
Question 1: What is the Metaverse?
So let’s tackle the first question: What is the metaverse? In simple terms, it is an immersive virtual world where people will live, work, shop, and interact through their avatars (icons or figures representing a person). Key to accessing this immersive environment will be virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) devices (think headsets). These devices will let you feel like you’re inside the action and actually interacting with others in real-time.
By Meta’s own admission,“(t)he metaverse is still a ways off, but parts of it are already here…” (more on this below). The company has double-downed on their vision as it plans to spend at least $10 billion on Facebook Reality Labs, their metaverse division tasked with managing and creating AR and VR software, content, and hardware, including the popular Oculus Quest VR headsets that the company already markets. And Meta isn’t the only one banking on this brave new world. Microsoft, Roblox and Epic Games are just some of the other companies working on their own metaverses too. If their visions materialize, scrolling through your Internet feed will soon become as old-school as dialing a rotary phone.
Author Neal Stephenson coined the term “metaverse” way back in 1992 in his science-fiction novel “Snow Crash.” In the book, Stephenson envisions a VR successor to the Internet where people use personal digital avatars inside an immersive online world to escape their dystopian reality.
Kids may have their own idea of the metaverse from Ernest Cline’s book, “Ready Player One,” or its movie adaptation. Cline’s story also envisions a dystopian world that compels people to spend a majority of their time in a virtual universe called OASIS. There, friends (through their avatars) hang out, experience exciting adventures, and inhabit physical features or even genders different from their offline ones.
This, ostensibly, is what our metaverse will be like. Soon we’ll all be able to be in the same meeting or living room, at the same virtual concert, or surfing the same virtual waves with friends and family who live on the opposite side of the globe, all while feeling like we are really there. What’s not to love about such a vision?
Question 2: Will the Metaverse Be Safe for Kids?
The big question for many parents and educators is whether or not this environment will be safe for children. Unfortunately, research on the impact of VR experiences upon children is relatively scant. However, research on the impact of VR upon adults is not, and it indicates that the emotional and physiological impact of VR is extremely intense as our bodies and brains actually register it as real.
Thomas Baumgartner, a neuroscientist at the University of Zurich, found distinct differences in how adult brains process VR versus those of children. He discovered that adults were better able to modulate VR experiences through the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain associated with emotion and behavior regulation. Children, on the other hand, showed no evidence of such ability as the same area of the brain remained undeveloped. His research team even warned of using caution when exposing children to the emotional stimuli of VR.
Additionally, when children watch TV or play video games, they are able to look away and ask questions about what they are seeing or being asked to do. However, with eyes and ears covered by VR headsets, children will be blocked off from parents who won’t be able to see what they’re doing or experiencing. Many parents already struggle trying to keep abreast of their children’s digital activities, and having them in an immersive environment may further complicate matters.
Another area of concern with children using VR lies in the fact that users often focus on images that appear to be far away but are actually on screens only a few centimeters from their eyes. In the short term, this can cause confusion, eye strain, and headaches; the long-term effects upon children are still unknown.
Most VR headsets, including Meta’s Oculus, are not recommended for children under 13 years of age. Additionally, Meta’s safety page 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, as every child under 13 who already has an account on a Meta platform—like Instagram or WhatsApp—knows, no identification or age verification is required to open an account. This minor hurdle is easily bypassed by a child lying about their age or by using a parent’s or shared family account.
But like just about everything else in the online world, for every danger and area of concern exists the exact opposite—positive and hopeful uses of new technology. So far, VR has been shown to reduce physical and emotional pain and anxiety during medical procedures. It’s been used to transform and improve education. There have been life-altering uses of VR too—applications for treating phobias, nightmares, and PTSD. It’s also been shown to be beneficial in building empathy, diversity, and inclusion. All of these applications utilize VR’s incredible power to blur the line between virtual and real.
In Some Ways, The Metaverse It Is Already Here
The metaverse has been here in bits and pieces for some time. One of the places to look to for an early example of it is within the popular gaming platform, Roblox.
Among U.S. children, a whopping 56 percent play on Roblox at least weekly. As any of these children will tell you, users on this platform are transported into virtual worlds they construct and experience with friends (via avatars) and, of course, where they buy, sell, and trade goods using an in-game currency called “Robux.”
Virtual avatars have existed in video games for some time, not just within Roblox, but also within Microsoft’s “Minecraft” and Epic Games’ “Fortnite”.
Craig Donato, chief business officer at Roblox, told Emerging Tech Brew:
"...one of the challenges of developing a metaverse is creating rules in order to prevent it from being a 'Wild West.' Moderation is a challenge for any internet community, and Roblox is not immune. The problem can be accentuated on the platform when players have been subjected to graphic violence or sex in experiences since it heavily markets to children."
To meet this challenge, Roblox employs over 4,000 human moderators dedicated to policing the platform and making sure experiences within the game don’t violate their community guidelines. Roblox also uses machine learning algorithms to scan and review content and it filters content by age level (another reason why children should be truthful about their ages).
By any measure, Roblox sets a high bar for moderation and their efforts at keeping their platform as safe as possible for children. But can, or will, these efforts be replicated by all the players in a massive metaverse?
Are We Ready for the Metaverse?
Back in the days of a nascent Internet, many people believed this magnificent new platform would be a boon for humankind because it would connect everyone and anyone—regardless of race, age, gender, social status, or political persuasion. This “new public square,” as many called it, would be teeming with new ideas, divergent worldviews, and alternative solutions to problems—unfiltered and unedited—and the world was going to be better for it.
Unfortunately, this utopian vision has never been fully realized. While much good has come from our digital connections, we still have not solved the problems of online hate, misinformation, cyberbullying, predators, security breaches, collection of personal information, unwanted targeting by advertisers, and much more. These are the things that worry parents on our existing Internet and may only be exacerbated in an all-encompassing metaverse where everything feels intense and real. Plus, there is no guarantee that every company racing to make its version of the metaverse will prioritize moderation and safety measures over getting there first.
The New York Times reported this:
“Andrew Bosworth, a Meta executive who will become chief technology officer in 2022, wrote in an employee memo that moderating what people say and how they act in the metaverse ‘at any meaningful scale is practically impossible.' ”
Our Best Hope
One thing that could help keep children safe in a massive metaverse is teaching them the digital literacy skills they will need to navigate and participate safely and wisely in this new environment. But even now few schools make time to teach such skills.
“VR will test us," writes Jaron Lanier, considered by many to be the “founding father” of VR, in his book Dawn of the New Everything. According to Lanier, "It could turn out to be the evilest invention of all time.”
Or the best. But if we want the metaverse to be a safer and kinder place than the Internet we already have, we have a lot of work to do between now and the five years Mark Zuckerman thinks it will take for it to be fully realized.
Diana Graber is the author of "Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology," the co-founder of Cyberwise, and the founder of Cyber Civics.