Since social media giant Facebook announced it would shift its focus to the “metaverse” and change its name to Meta, the metaverse has become a cultural buzzword. It’s also becoming a growing concern for parents: as children flock to virtual games and devices, many parents have scrambled to understand what the metaverse is, and what it might mean for their childrens’ futures.
In its simplest terms, the metaverse expands far beyond Facebook or virtual reality. It’s a platform of interconnected digital worlds where people interact through first-person avatars.1
Becoming meta-literate is increasingly relevant for parents who want to protect their children and maintain control over what they see and do in the metaverse – a virtual platform founded on the principles of decentralization and lack of control.
You may be concerned about how your child interacts with others in the metaverse, as well as how the metaverse’s environments and users might impact your child. Apprehension surrounding the metaverse is understandable, but you can empower yourself and your children to explore this vast, new digital world safely.
Table of Contents:
- What is the Metaverse?
- How Kids Use the Metaverse
- What’s the Difference Between Video Games and the Metaverse?
- Virtual Reality (VR) Devices and the Metaverse
- Educational Possibilities for Children in the Metaverse
- Potential Dangers of the Metaverse
- Tips for Keeping Your Kids Safe in the Metaverse
What Is The Metaverse?
The term “metaverse” is a combination of the prefix “meta” (meaning beyond) and the word “universe”. However, one true definition of the metaverse is difficult to pin down and define – and that’s part of its nature.
In brief, the metaverse is a series of connected, shared digital worlds where users can interact with one another through digital avatars. Metaverse experiences must have two key components: they must be immersive and must be social.2 In the metaverse, people can do many of the activities they do in the real world, like playing games together, shopping, working, and going to events.
How Kids Use the Metaverse
Kids access the metaverse with VR headsets, phones, computers, or non-immersive gaming devices (such as traditional gaming consoles). From a high-level perspective, kids are using the metaverse for gaming and socialization. In the metaverse, children can create digital worlds or custom avatars, and they may also use it to purchase products or services with virtual currency, cryptocurrency, or setting-specific currencies (such as Robux currency, in the case of Roblox).
Some of the most popular games among children that provide a metaverse experience are Fortnite, Minecraft, and Roblox. While many people might associate the metaverse with virtual reality, it’s not required to access the metaverse. Wildly popular games like Roblox, which can be played from a PC or smartphone, are part of the metaverse because the players participate in a customizable, shared digital environment and interact socially with one another.
Roblox currently has over 202 million monthly active users, and 56% of U.S. children play Roblox at least once a week. The game exploded in popularity during the first quarter of 2021, when many children were still at home due to Covid-19.3 Virtual reality platforms, such as PlayStationVR, will also have a host of games for their users to play in the metaverse.
What’s the difference between video games and the metaverse?
Some aspects of the metaverse have been part of video games for years, and some people say that massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) that take place in digital worlds, like World of Warcraft, are actually precursors to the metaverse.4 A key difference is that in the metaverse, players have more freedom in creating their own world and more control over their avatars than in MMORPG. In traditional video games, the goal is often to win or “beat” the game. In the metaverse, one of the main goals is to socialize with others.
Many American children spent months or years in remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, and have become accustomed to making connections in a digital space.
Through apps such as VRChat, Altspace, and Horizon Worlds, people can attend meet-ups, chatrooms, and other digital events. They can design their own digital avatar to represent them in the metaverse. These avatars can typically be customized by adjusting their posture, appearance, weight, age, and even their equipment.
While users usually need to be at least 13 years old to sign up for these social platforms, children can easily get around age restrictions since it’s difficult to verify users’ ages. Parents should check guidelines before allowing their children to sign up for accounts in the metaverse.
Virtual Reality (VR) Devices and the Metaverse
VR is one of the most interesting ways kids can enter the metaverse. VR enables users to interact with artificial 3D environments, created through computer modeling and simulations.5 Virtual reality devices and headsets, such as the Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, and Google Daydream View, provide people with immersive experiences and the sensation that they are individually present in digital environments.
Common Sense Media reports that 17% of children ages eight to 18 report having a VR headset – that’s almost one in five children. Virtual reality device sales jumped 19% from 2019 to 2020, and sales are likely to keep climbing.6
Educational Possibilities for Children in the Metaverse
Some thought leaders in education and policy believe that the metaverse may hold deep learning potential for children in classroom settings – and beyond. From taking immersive field trips to ancient landmarks to teaching empathy and coding, the metaverse has the potential to generate active, engaging, and impactful learning unlike any other virtual platform.7
However, the educational community currently urges peers and policy makers alike to stay on top of recent technological developments regarding the metaverse.
Potential Dangers of the Metaverse
If there’s one thing we know, it’s that the metaverse isn’t a future possibility – it’s here, and in light of recent billion-dollar investments by global companies, it’s probably here to stay. It may even become as omnipresent as platforms like Tiktok or Instagram.
The metaverse carries many promising possibilities for children, including immersive learning. However, it also poses certain risks and dangers to children.
Risks and potential dangers of the metaverse might include or be due to:1,8
- Age verifications. Age verification remains extremely unreliable and often inaccurate on digital platforms. Age verification is a difficult task for tech companies to accomplish on a universal level without breaching personal data. Therefore, although the metaverse desperately needs age verification in some forums, age verification efforts have been stalled.
- Lack of research. Since the metaverse is relatively new, there aren’t yet any long-term studies on its impact on childrens’ health and development.
- Policy lags. Technology tends to evolve faster than our laws do. If technological advancements in the metaverse outpace policy-related progress, this may pose various risks to children (and adults).
- Physiological dangers. VR sets can sometimes cause children to become nauseous or experience eye strain. These immersive devices can also make children unaware of their real physical surroundings, sometimes resulting in injuries.
- Psychological risks. Some emerging studies indicate that a positive correlation may exist between VR technologies underlying the metaverse and psychological implications such as addiction, aggression, and dissociation from reality.
- Memory risks. Some researchers believe that the metaverse could lead to the creation of false memories in children.
- Privacy violations. So much of the metaverse is customizable – but it’s also almost entirely trackable. So, if a child designs an avatar or environment the way they would like it to look or act, companies may be able to access this data and use it to target children with advertisements.
- False information and manipulation. One highly popular technology in the metaverse is called deepfake, a type of technology that uses deep learning to replace what someone looks like with a different face in media or video. This technology may be used to manipulate or persuade people (including children). Extremist groups have also proven highly effective at recruitment in social media platforms through the use of targeted meme campaigns, and influencers who gradually begin to introduce extremist content. Unfortunately, the metaverse could pose an elevated risk for extremist group youth recruitment.
- Exposure to age-inappropriate material, including sexual content. In the metaverse, kids may come across virtual strip clubs or simulations of intimate acts. They also may encounter other players who want to groom them for abuse or threaten sexual assault. Children could also experience cyberbullying from children they know in real life.
- Financial dangers and financial cyber risks. Hackers roam the metaverse and are actively searching for ways to hijack users’ personal information. Children may be less aware of the risks of sharing personal or financial information online.
Tips for Keeping Your Kids Safe in the Metaverse
To ride the tidal wave of metaverse developments, parents must stay in-the-know regarding the risks that may accompany their children “plugging in” to the metaverse. The following video from SafeHome.org outlines the best ways to keep your children safe in this rapidly-evolving digital space.
Parents and policy makers need to ensure that age-appropriate spaces exist in the metaverse and take action to guard the safety of their children. Here are a few more tips and precautions for protecting your child in the metaverse:
- Jump in! Not only could playing alongside your children be a great bonding experience, but it will also help protect your kids in the metaverse. Become an informed metaverse consumer by trying it out with your child and experiencing it together. You can gain a more in-depth understanding of how your child uses the metaverse by testing this virtual platform on your own.
- Lead by example. Teach your children to deal with bad actors and bad characters in the metaverse when you play alongside them. Lead your children by example and show them what to do in risky situations. For example, make sure to point out to your children when someone is asking questions that may be inappropriate or meant to compromise your personal information. If someone asks for your banking or payment information, where you might live in real life, or any other question that feels like it could be too personal, teach your children to not respond and inform you.
- Encourage balance. Set a limit to the amount of time your child can spend using their video game consoles, computers, phones, or VR headsets each day or week. Some sources believe that parents should limit their children’s time using virtual reality game consoles to twenty minutes a day or less. Breaks are also important to prevent eye strain and nausea.
- Educate your child on the dangers of using any online platform. Just like in the real world, teach your child to be aware of their surroundings, cautious of strangers, and careful with their money. Explain why they should never share any personal information with other users.
- Remain informed. Keep track of changing policies, educate yourself on the most recent VR and metaverse-related studies, research the safest new products for your children, and remain in-the-know regarding metaverse trends. Resources like Common Sense Media provide reviews and safety ratings for many games that can be played in the metaverse. Also be sure to read up on children's privacy laws and data protection and ways to help protect your child from data hackers. You can also track developments across popular metaverse platforms, such as new Roblox worlds or updates.
Youth safety in the metaverse begins in the home. While the metaverse is a mysterious and quickly-evolving environment, you can help protect your children online by taking an active role in their metaverse activities. By educating yourself and your children about the metaverse and its dangers, you can also find common ground for conversation and create open channels for communication. You might even realize that you enjoy the metaverse as much as your kids do!