You’ve probably heard the term “Metaverse,” which is a broad term for what many people think will be the next generation of the internet. At the heart of the metaverse is “virtual reality” and its close cousin “augmented reality.” Virtual reality is when you are totally immersed in a 3-D computer-generated world. Augmented reality is typically superimposed computer-generated images over real-world situations whether on a phone or with glasses that allow you to see through the screen.
Virtual reality and the metaverse pose some new challenges for parents, but it also provides new opportunities for all stakeholders — parents, teens, industry and government — to re-think safety, privacy and security as this new paradigm takes hold.
While much of the metaverse is about the future, virtual reality headsets from companies like Meta-owned Oculus have been on the market for years and we’re starting to see augmented reality glasses. This guide applies mostly to Oculus headsets and apps but is generally applicable to other platforms.
Already, we are seeing changes such as Meta’s recent announcement that it is launching parental supervision tools later this spring. When these tools launch, parents will be able to view all the apps their teens are using, block specific apps, receive purchase notifications, block links to prevent teens from accessing content on connected devices, and have visibility into their kids list of Oculus friends and how much time their spending on their headsets.
What parents can do now
We will update this guide when new tools become available, but — in the mean time — there are things parents can do to help their teens more safely use VR and other interactive technologies. These include:
- Make sure your child is old-enough to use the device and apps. Oculus (along with most social media sites), requires children to be 13 or older to use their technology. This is important for both privacy and safety reasons. Children under 13 should not be allowed to have their own devices or accounts. Some parents allow their children to use VR devices under strict supervision while the parent is present but it is not appropriate to allow unsupervised access to a device for anyone under 13. In addition, some apps have their own age rating so be aware that even if your teen is old enough to use a device, that does not mean that all compatible apps are age-appropriate.
- Have conversations with your teen before they get a headset, when they get it, after they’ve used it for awhile and when they get new apps or experiences. Make it a conversation, not a lecture or an inquisition and ask them what they like doing with the device and what they do to protect their privacy, security and safety. You might be pleasantly surprised to learn that they have thought about these issues. If not, you can calmly help them understand what they can do to protect themselves. Talk with your kids about the apps they are using and make sure they understand the risks.
- Know and educate your child about reporting and blocking tools.
Understanding specific risks of virtual reality
- Physical: Make sure you are using the device in a safe place and manner. Oculus has a safety page that describes how to avoid being physically injured while using their devices
- Psychological and emotional: Being immersed in a virtual world means that the content you see and the people you may interact with can have a stronger impact on your then typical “2-D” experiences. For example, someone’s avatar getting too close to you can, in some cases, feel intimidating, threatening or creepy, especially if the person behind that avatar is deliberately trying to scare, hit on or intimidate you. Some experiences, such as being close to the edge of a virtual cliff, can have an emotional impact similar to a real world situation. Even though you know there is no physical danger, your mind can trigger a sense of danger. Within limits, that can be thrilling in a positive way but it can also be traumatic so it’s important to know when to take off the headset.
- Advertising, misinformation and critical thinking. As with all platforms, there is the possibility of people trying to sell you something or convince you of something. While advertising will have its place in virtual reality and the metaverse, be aware that an immersive platform can have a deeper impact than a typical 2-D platform. That’s not to say there is anything necessarily wrong about buying products that are advertised but it’s important to also be aware of product placement within virtual experiences and the emotional impact of persuasive advertising. The same is true with information. Just like social media, the metaverse will no doubt be used by people, governments and organizations seeking to misinform people over a variety of issues. Media literacy and critical thinking skills such as those covered by ConnectSafely’s Quick-Guide to Misinformation & Media Literacy also apply to the metaverse.
- Inappropriate contact: While many VR experiences are single-user, some are collaborative or competitive where you interact, in real time, with other people. Just as with any interactive technology, there is the risk of being contacted by someone who may not have your best interest in mind. This could include people who bully and harass but it might also include sexual solicitation or scamming. Talk with your kids about this risk, not in a way that exaggerates the risk or scares them but to make sure they are aware that they may have the power to ignore or block anyone who approaches them in ways that make them feel uncomfortable. They should always avoid getting into conversations or situations that are sexual in nature and to avoid contact with people they meet in-person or on another platform such as texting, messaging, email. video call or a chat app.
- Inappropriate content: Again, make sure your child is old enough to use the service (Oculus is 13+) and try to learn about the Apps and games your kids are using. CommonSense Media has listings of age-appropriate VR games, filtered by age ranges. Oculus uses ratings from the International Age Raging Coalition for all its content.
- Financial risks: Make sure you talk with your child about any purchases they make in a VR app-store or within apps. You should establish family rules regarding any purchases and use whatever controls may be available. Also know that, while it’s still early in this process, there is a vision to integrate the use of cryptocurrency into metaverse experiences. While cryptocurrency has its advantages it also has its risks, including high volatility and fewer government regulations. This may change over time but — for now — it’s wise to be cautious and have your eyes wide-open when dealing with cryptocurrencies.
- Talk with your kids about the apps they’re using. Discuss various risks associated with virtual and augmented reality (see: Metaverse: What’s the Risk? – ConnectSafely)
- Be aware of reporting and blocking features as well as any other protections offered by your device or platform. Some tools vary by app so make sure you understand the tools available with any apps your teen uses. Oculus allows users to accept or reject friends requests and has tools to block people from interacting with you.
- Only get apps from approved app stores (do not “side load” apps from unapproved sources). These sources may not vet apps for inappropriate content, privacy or security/
- Be especially careful during live/interactive experiences where you interact with other people. Know how to block people who are bothering you or create a buffer space to separate your avatar from other avatars.
- Take breaks. It’s important with any technology but especially highly immersive experiences where you may be visually isolated from the world around you.
Go over the company’s community standards. Meta, for example, prohibits:
- Harassing or bullying other users through conduct, including stalking or repeatedly following others against their wishes
- Cornering, blocking normal movement, physically intimidating or invading personal space without consent
- Encouraging intimidation or bullying of others, including threats to SWAT, hack, dox, or DDOS.
- Conducting yourself in an offensive or abusive way, including touching someone in a sexual way or making sexual gestures.
- Sexualizing minors in any way. In cases of sexual exploitation of children, Meta reports content to the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children
- Supporting or representing hateful ideologies or groups by using symbols or attacking people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, caste, sex, gender, gender identity, and serious disease or disability.
More Metaverse Safety Resources:
Here are links to additional ConnectSafely resources on metaverse safety