The metaverse sounds like it could be a scary place. Recent headlines have highlighted the dangers to children of the metaverse – a generic term for the range of online virtual worlds, developed by different tech companies, in which users can interact. Children’s charities have raised concerns about its potential for harm.
Recently, Meta – Facebook’s parent company – announced that teenagers would be able to use its VR Horizon Worlds app in North America. In this online environment, users are represented by avatars and spend time in virtual worlds, making use of virtual reality (VR) headsets. Some politicians in the US have already voiced their unease. It is certainly possible that Meta could extend this access to teens elsewhere in the world.
It would be no surprise if parents were concerned about this technology and how it might affect their children. In fact, children are already online in the metaverse – and there are steps parents can take to understand this technology, the risks it may pose, and what they can do.
Avatars and online games
Perhaps the most famous current interactive world aimed at children is Roblox, an online platform that allows users to create avatars, play games, make their own games, and interact with others. Young people play games developed by other users – the most popular is currently Adopt Me!, in which players adopt animals and live with them in a virtual world.
This mix of gameplay, interaction with others, and opportunity for creativity are all reasons Roblox is so popular. While it can be played using VR headsets, the vast majority of interaction takes place using more traditional devices such as phones, tablets and laptops.
Another emerging platform, Zepeto, has a similar model of allowing users to create environments, access “worlds” developed by others, and chat with others within these environments. Some young people will interact solely with their own group of friends in a specific world; other worlds will allow interaction with people they don’t know.
However, there is a rich history of platforms that could be considered, in modern terminology, to be “metaverses”. One is Minecraft, perhaps the most popular platform before Roblox. Launched in 2011, Minecraft is a block-building game which also allows for interaction with other users.
No matter what the weather is like outside your window, you and your friends can hang out in a magical snow-filled winter wonderland.
— Roblox (@Roblox) January 3, 2023
Before Minecraft, there were other platforms such as multiplayer online games Club Penguin (launched 2005) and Moshi Monsters (launched 2008) which, while smaller in scope, still allowed young people to engage with others on online platforms with avatars they created. These games also attracted moral panics at the time.
While new terms such as the metaverse and unfamiliar technology like VR headsets might make us fear these things are new, as with most things in the digital world, they are simply progressions of what has come before.
And on the whole, the risks remain similar. Headsets in VR-based worlds do present new challenges in terms of how immersive the experience is, and how we might monitor what a young person is doing. But otherwise, there is little new in the risks associated with these platforms, which are still based around interactions with others. Children may be exposed to upsetting or harmful language, or they may find themselves interacting with someone who is not who they claim to be.
In my work with colleagues on online harms, we often talk about mitigating risk through knowledge. It is important for parents to have conversations with their children, understand the platforms they are using, and research the tools these platforms provide to help reduce the potential risks.
Most provide parental controls and tools to block and report abusive users. Roblox offers a wide range of tools for parents, ranging from being able to restrict who their children play with to monitoring a child’s interactions in a game. Zepeto has similar services.
As a parent, understanding these tools, how to set them up and how to use them is one of the best ways of reducing the risk of upset or harm to your child in these environments.
However, perhaps the most important thing is for parents to make sure their children are comfortable telling them about issues they may have online. If your child is worried or upset by what has happened on one of these platforms, they need to know they can tell you about it without fear of being told off, and that you can help.
It is also best to have regular conversations rather than confrontations. Ask your child’s opinion or thoughts on news stories about the metaverse. If they know you are approachable and understanding about their online lives, they are more likely to talk about them.
Author Bio: Andy Phippen is a Professor of IT Ethics and Digital Rights at Bournemouth University