Metaverse Junior: The Implications of an Immersive Internet for Children

A Metaverse-like Internet dominating our lives is looking more like a matter of when than if. And when it does eventually arrive, among the most enthusiastic to jump head-first into it would be kids and teens. After all, they have their whole future ahead of them - a future shaped by all the tech evolutions on the horizon.

Life in the Metaverse wouldn’t all be fun and games, however. There will be dangers and threats that will require some street-smarts to dodge. Children naturally don't have these yet, so parents need to protect their sons and daughters from losing their way in the Metaverse, and content developers have to be mindful of what their youngest users may get up to.

Inappropriate Content

The Internet has amassed a huge wealth of all sorts of information and content. But as we all know, there is a lot of stuff out there that isn’t appropriate for younger viewers (e.g. pornography, strong violence or obscene language). Because of the huge and open nature of the World Wide Web where most content isn’t monitored, censoring children from problematic websites and comments is more difficult than stopping them from accessing age-restricted films or video games.

PARENTS SHOULD

Consider implementing a firewall to stop children and teenagers from accessing inappropriate websites and spaces. It's important to remember, however, that this isn't a one size fits all solution. Not all parents may see eye-to-eye when it comes to what is suitable for their young ones and what isn't - this all depends on the age and maturity of their children, and individual family values. You'd be wise to enable profanity filters while your 7-year-old browses the Metaverse, but your 16-year-old may be downright insulted by the same treatment!

If

DEVELOPERS SHOULD

Prohibit minors from accessing their spaces or using their apps if they host adult content are otherwise not suitable for younger viewers.

It's all too easy for children to lie about their age on the Internet and say they're over the age of 18 to get access to content they shouldn't have. But

Immersive Data Collection

Websites on the Internet we currently use may already collect enough information as they do, be it our viewing and search history, email addresses, pictures we upload, and in some cases, even our sign-in location. But the information collected of us via the Metaverse is bound to be even more intensive as headsets and motion-capturing devices can read our body movements, facial features and other biometrics.

PARENTS SHOULD

Carefully read the relevant sections of terms and conditions as to what data an app or space may collect, and how it would be used. Children should also be aware of how they should keep themselves safe online (e.g. not sharing too much personal information or joining spaces they don't know).

DEVELOPERS SHOULD

Be clear and upfront about the data that is collected of their users, and ensure sufficient privacy procedures are in place if their app or space permits children. Many countries enforce legal regulations on how data of users under 18 should be collected and processed - the United States is particularly serious about data collection of children in accordance to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

Immersive Screen Time

Virtual reality applications are even more immersive than traditional media formats. So immersive, in fact, that they can make you lose your sense of time passing by! Researchers have identified this phenomenon as 'time compression' and it's surprisingly common among VR headset users. Thanks to time compression, timing yourself within the Metaverse without a clock nearby would be virtually impossible...and could lead to addiction!

Not only can too much screen time be harmful for a child's eyes, but it can also disrupt their sleep schedule, in turn affecting their performance in school and their energy levels throughout the day.

PARENTS SHOULD

Set timers if their child is particularly prone to tech addiction, both to limit the amount of time spent in the Metaverse and to ensure they can log off to unwind, just in time for bed.

DEVELOPERS SHOULD

Add real-time cues to help users identify the time, such as a clock or timed lighting. It'll be surprising

Microtransactions

Each year, more and more news stories are popping up of young children racking up thousands in debt on their parents’ credit cards...and not to buy new toys or designer trainers.

Video games are more popular now than they ever have been. Many of the most popular titles are free to play, but with a catch. As the difficulty increases, so does the amount of ads tempting the player to buy cheap accessories or tools to help them get through that one tricky level. Some games may even have loot boxes, a lottery-like system of surprise bundles where you don’t know what items you’ll get until you buy one.

In a Metaverse world, you’ll probably have the option to dress your virtual avatar however you want, and decorate your personal space with digital furniture and goodies. It’s ridiculously easy to get kids pestering their parents to buy them anything if it’s marketed as the in thing to show off to their mates. They don’t understand the value of money or the greed of the game industry, and that is why they’re a prime target of such predatory business models.

PARENTS SHOULD

Establish a system of trust and transparency when it comes to spending money in the Metaverse. If your child really wants to buy some accessories for their avatar or space, place a limit on how much they spend.

DEVELOPERS SHOULD

In an ideal world, not add microtransactions to spaces aimed at kids! Sadly, this is wishful thinking as many companies place profit before principle.

Grooming and Bullying

For many young people, the Internet has allowed them to make new friends from around the world, many of whom they had never met in person. Unfortunately, the web has also become a hotbed for two of every parents' worst nightmares: cyberbullying and sexual grooming. Bullies who are too cowardly to say boo to a goose face-to-face suddenly have the medium to troll and harass other users without the fear of being personally exposed.

However, the most evil threats lurking in the Metaverse are usually the ones who act the friendliest. As users would assume the form of a computer-generated avatar as they roam around the Metaverse, it may be even harder for children to forget that the people they meet online may not be who they say they are. This means they could be talking to absolutely anyone. It's this anonymity and a child's naivete that paedophiles take advantage of; they know exactly how to let a young person's guard down by pretending to be another child their age or making them feel like nobody understands them like they do.

PARENTS SHOULD

Make sure their children understand the dangers and risks of talking to strangers online. The vast majority of kids know not to start talking to random people they spot on the street, but that caution seems to go by the by online.

Parents should also encourage their children to talk to them if they see or hear anything that has made them uncomfortable or distressed.

DEVELOPERS SHOULD

Keep their spaces safe for everyone by implementing a zero-tolerance policy for bullying or predatory behaviours. Children should be allowed to report problematic users to a moderation team.

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