The Darkside of the Metaverse: 5 Ways to Protect Your Teen
People are joining the metaverse in record numbers.
People are joining the Metaverse in record numbers. In 2021, 6.1 million virtual reality headsets were sold, bringing the total number of headsets used to 16.44 million.1 The metaverse app, Horizon Worlds, now has over 300,000 monthly users.2 And its competitor, Decentraland, saw its user base expand by 3,300 percent in 2021.3
With this many people joining the metaverse, it’s inevitable that many of them will be teenagers. And where kids go, the crooks looking to take advantage of them will surely follow. Scary? Sure. But for us parents, a little digital security will go a long way towards protecting our kids from any new-fangled digital threats the Metaverse is likely to pose.
So what will those threats look like in the Metaverse? And how can parents keep their kids safe in this brave new virtual world?
We’ll take a look at the biggest risks kids face today, and give you five ways to protect your teens from running afoul of cyber predators in the Metaverse.
But First … What Is the Metaverse?
I know it sounds like some futuristic world like “The Matrix,” and in some ways it is.
The “metaverse” is a term for the new virtual reality internet that users can access through VR headsets. It includes VR chat rooms, VR video games, VR meeting apps, and other aspects of this new, interconnected 3D world.
Some of the most popular metaverse apps include:
- Horizon Worlds
- Somnium Space
Important Note: The terms of service for Horizon Worlds states that children under the age of 18 are not allowed to use the app. Despite this warning, many parents do allow their children to use it. But we just want to make you aware of this statement from the developer. The other apps on this list are officially available to children and adults ages 13 and up.
The metaverse also includes virtual land and NFTs that exist on crypto networks like Ethereum and Solana. If you want to know more about this aspect, you can read our guide to crypto in the metaverse.
There are certainly benefits to teens using the metaverse. It’s more immersive than the social media apps we’re all used to. So it should help teens to interact with their friends in a way that doesn’t feel artificial.
But alas, there are threats to consider in the metaverse as well.
The Dark Side of the Metaverse
Teens face a few big risks when they use metaverse apps. Here are some of the most prevalent ones parents should look out for:
- Physical injury or sickness: Using VR headsets for too long can cause eyestrain, headaches, and even anxiety attacks. If your teen stands up while using the headset, they could even be injured by tripping or falling.
- Cyberbullying: Cyberbullying can feel worse in the metaverse than on the traditional internet. For example, a bully in the metaverse can get extremely close to a person’s avatar to manipulate them. This risk doesn’t exist on the traditional internet in quite the same way.
- Personal contact: Just as with a social media app, people with bad intentions can try to get personal identifying information from your child to contact him/her in real life. Sexual predation, stalking, and identity theft are all within the realm of possibility here.
- Exposure to inappropriate content: Most metaverse users right now are adults. And its content creators don’t always keep in mind that teens sometimes use these apps. So there is a risk that your teen can be exposed to content you disapprove of.
- Change in perception of the “real world”: Spending too much time in the metaverse may cause a teen to perceive the real world in ways that are unrealistic. For example, a teen may become depressed and lonely after concluding that everyone in the metaverse seems happy. But this may be a distorted perception caused by the fact that popular people in the metaverse only talk about positive things.
This effect has already been observed in traditional social media, and the metaverse may make this problem even worse.
Consider This: Some of the risks that teens face in the metaverse are the same as ones they face on the traditional internet: password theft, identity theft, in-app purchases, scam apps, and more. Check out our comprehensive guide to protecting children online and our guide to the best identity theft protection family plans for more general info about online child safety.
These are the risks. But luckily, there are a few habits you can practice to help protect your teen against these risks. Let’s talk about the five ways you can help keep your teen safe in the metaverse.
#1. Talk About Physical Safety
Talk to your teen about how to be physically safe when using a VR headset. Headsets block out the real-world environment, making it easy to trip or fall.
If you have a dedicated room in your house just for VR experiences, it should have no furniture or any other objects in it. If you don’t have a dedicated VR room, your child can help to avoid injury by always sitting down when using the headset. Most metaverse apps don’t require the user to stand anyway.
Other serious problems with headsets include eye strain, headaches, dizziness, and other symptoms of VR fatigue. Encourage your teen to take frequent breaks and avoid long periods of time in the metaverse. Some researchers in the U.K. have suggested that a 10- to 15-minute break should be taken every 30 minutes to avoid VR sickness.4
#2. Teach Your Teen How to Block and Report
There are bad apples in any society, the metaverse included. But luckily, your child can block any person in the metaverse that they don’t want to talk to.
For example, in AltspaceVR, you can block a user by clicking on his or her avatar and selecting the “block” option from the menu. If only you could do that in real life!
If a person violates the app’s terms of service, your child can also report the violator.
Make sure your teen knows how to use these functions in all of the apps he or she uses. As the parent, this may take a little troubleshooting upfront on your part, but it’s well worth the time.
#3. Have a Frank Discussion About Online Privacy
If your teen already uses traditional social media apps, you’ve probably already had this conversation with her. But if you haven’t, you should definitely have this talk before your teen starts to use metaverse apps.
Encourage your child to use an avatar name that doesn’t reveal personal information and to avoid giving out personal details to other users. Social engineering scams are rampant, and the more cautious your child is, the better.
Pro Tip: Safely Accessing the Metaverse”]If you connect to metaverse apps using public Wi-Fi or other unsecured methods, a nearby hacker may be able to spy on you to find out which apps you are using. You can help to keep this information hidden by using a VPN. We’ve got a guide to the best VPNs to help you pick out the right one.
#4. Discuss Personal Boundary Settings
Believe it or not, there have been cases of “groping” in the metaverse. A 43-year-old woman in the U.K. claims that her Horizon World avatar was groped by multiple men against her will. The men made inappropriate sexual comments and took screenshots while they did this.5 What was supposed to be a fun outing in the metaverse turned into a 3D-realistic nightmare!
After this story went viral, the developer (Meta) apologized and promised to create a fix to prevent this kind of virtual assault in the future.
Meta has now introduced a “personal boundary” setting in the app. By default, it puts a 4-foot boundary between your avatar and everyone not on your friends list. You can change this in the settings so that even your friends are affected by the boundary, or you can turn it off.
Microsoft has also implemented a default “Safety Bubble” in AltspaceVR that protects users from having their avatars’ personal spaces invaded.
Regardless of which metaverse app your teen uses, make sure they know how to change these settings so that they can protect their personal space and not be harassed by bad actors.
#5. Use Parental Controls as They Become Available
Unfortunately, most metaverse apps don’t have parental controls right now. But some companies are working on solutions, and they should become available over time. For example, Microsoft has started requiring users to log in with their Microsoft accounts before using AltspaceVR. This should help to keep kids from being able to use the app without the consent of their parents.
Over time, Microsoft may expand this function so that it allows parents to restrict certain content in the app — without restricting the app entirely. Other metaverse apps may also provide these tools in the future.
Beware of Malware: A lot of parents are letting their kids use laptops at home for schoolwork and research. Some school districts are even sending laptops home with kids. But it can be easy for a kid to accidently download malware or run across inappropriate content on these devices. So you may want to follow these tips on how to make your laptop kid-safe.
So if you’re concerned about your teen being exposed to content that is inappropriate, you may want to make use of metaverse parental controls as they become available.
The metaverse is changing the world as we know it. As headsets get more affordable, the number of people who use them continues to grow. In the future, we may be having business meetings in the metaverse or even doing our jobs within it.
But as this 3D world grows, developers will need to find ways to help prove to parents that children and teens will be safe within it. For example, they’ll need to create areas of the metaverse that specifically cater to children and teens.
In the meantime, it’s still mostly aimed at adults. So if your teen wants to enjoy all that this new internet has to offer, you’ll face a few challenges in keeping them safe.
But following the tips in this article can keep you and your teen on the right track within the metaverse.
Statista. (2021, Jul). Virtual reality (VR) headset unit sales worldwide from 2019 to 2024.
The Verge. (2022, Feb). Meta’s social VR platform Horizon hits 300,000 users.
The Generalist. Decentraland: The Metaverse's Early Mover.
U.K. Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. (2020, Sept). The safety of domestic virtual reality systems.
Business Insider. (2022, Jan). A woman claimed she was virtually groped by a gang of male avatars in Meta's metaverse, report says.