New report reveals the dangers of virtual reality for young children

A new report is raising concerns about the metaverse and how safe new virtual reality technology really is for children.

March 24, 2022, 9:25 AM EDT

By Danielle Campoamor

A new report is raising concerns about Meta’s virtual reality technology and the dangers the company’s metaverse may pose to children.

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit offering families entertainment and technology recommendations, released a report on Thursday, indicating the virtual reality technology used by Meta, formerly known as Facebook, is moving too fast for the safeguards currently in place.

“The bad news is our kids are more used to it than we are,” Jim Steyer, a children’s advocate and civil rights attorney, told NBC’s Kate Snow. “And so they can be exposed to sexual and violent content in the metaverse without us knowing it.”

Related: How virtual reality is innovating work-from-home experiences

The report, titled “Kids and the Metaverse,” detailed what the organization believes to be a number of hazards for children using Meta’s virtual technology, including:

  • Sexually explicit content and abusive language and behavior
  • Privacy and data collection on users, like eye movement and facial recognition
  • Potential psychological risks, like “addiction, increased aggression and dissociation from reality”

“We want everyone using our products to have a good experience and easily find the tools that can help in situations where our rules are broken, so we can investigate and take action,” Joe Osborne, a Meta spokesperson said in a statement provided to NBC and TODAY Parents. “Quest devices are designed for children ages 13 and up, and some experiences are only for people 18 and up. We’re making parental supervision tools available on Quest in the coming months, allowing parents and guardians to be more involved in their teens’ experiences in VR.”

Related: Consumer Electronics Show returns with holograms, augmented reality

Snow tried using Meta’s virtual reality technology herself, using a Meta headset, creating an avatar, then entering the metaverse along with Jeff Haynes, a senior editor from Common Sense, who served as Snow’s virtual guide.

Snow used two popular apps, starting with “Horizon Worlds,” which is designed for users 18 and over.

Soon after, Snow met another user who called himself “Max.” 

“Can I ask you a question? How old are you?” Kate asked.

“I’m actually 13,” Max replied.

Snow said Max did not disclose how he wondered into the app, though it is not uncommon for kids to use a virtual reality headset initially set up by an adult.

 During her exchange with Max, Snow was approached by one of Meta’s virtual moderators. These moderators are tasked with ensuring the virtual realities remain safe.

“And if someone’s being rude, like saying the N word, calling people gay, they’ll eject them,” Max said.

Related: Can virtual reality help teens deal with social anxiety, ADHD, and more?

Snow then switched to an app called VR Chat, which was created by a third-party company and not by Meta.

As a blue robot, Snow entered a virtual strip club, created and uploaded by another app user. Snow identified herself as a reporter who is trying to understand the metaverse.

“Oh you should not have come in here, God have mercy,” one user responded. “Bless your soul.”

In the virtual strip club, Snow witnessed pole dancing avatars and simulated sex acts too explicit for her to disclose. One avatar propositioned Snow and Haynes for virtual oral sex.

And again, not everyone in the virtual strip club was over the age of 18.

“Is everyone in here adults?” Snow asked.

“It’s 16 and up,” one user responded.

“There’s a lot of children in here,” another said.

Users also shared that anyone can participate in virtual pole dancing, and it’s common for people to “crowd around you” a lot while you’re in the app. Snow said the “sensation of being mobbed by other users was overwhelming.”

Related: ‘It gives me a reason to get up in the morning’: How virtual reality tech is helping seniors cope with isolation and depression

“That was scary, as a parent,” Snow added. “I just saw things that I can’t put on television, in a room where they said it was 16 and up. And not everyone was 16.”

 The creator of VR Chat told NBC News that “harmful content” would be “removed from our platform as soon as it was reported to our moderators,” and that “predatory and toxic behavior has no place on our platform.”

Meta, who created the popular virtual reality headset Snow wore, as well as some of the apps she explored, like “Horizon Worlds,” told NBC News that “in the coming months” the company will be creating “parental supervision tools, including giving parents the ability to lock apps with a password.”

In May, Meta said teenagers will automatically be blocked from downloading apps that are not deemed age-appropriate. The company will also offer other measures meant to assist parents in preventing their children from entering adult-only virtual spaces.

“So the companies would argue it’s up to the parents to safeguard this stuff,” Snow said. “It’s up to the parents to put in guidance.”

 “There’s no question that parents have an important role in this new phenomenon,” Steyer responded. “But quite frankly, the single most important responsibility is on the industry itself to behave appropriately and responsibly and for the government to do their job and regulate this new environment in a way that’s healthy and safe for our children. Period. Full stop.” 

“Parents are always the last line of defense and we do need to educate ourselves,” he continued. “But it’s completely unfair to put the onus entirely on parents when the industry is going to be making billions of dollars in this new environment. Oftentimes with no regard for the well being of kids and teens.”

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