Kids, Virtual Reality, and the Metaverse
Has your child been begging for a virtual-reality headset for Christmas? Do they already have a Meta (Oculus) Quest 2? If you're considering allowing, or already purchased, a virtual reality (VR) headset for your child, then you should know about the experiences you're providing to your child, understand the risks of the technology, and learn how to keep them safe in VR.
Let's begin by covering some basic definitions.
- Virtual Reality (VR)
- An immersive digital experience that makes you feel as if you're in a virtual environment or video game.
- VR Headset
- The physical device used to access virtual reality. This may be a standalone headset such as the Meta Quest 2, or a headset that needs to be connected to a separate computer or game console, like PlayStation VR.
- These devices may be equipped with various sensors, face tracking, cameras, and microphones. Privacy could be a concern.
- An online experience, usually in VR, designed to mimic the real world. Users can design their own objects, environments, and avatars. They interact freely with other users. It's like a VR video game filled with many other user created worlds.
Virtual Reality is still in its infancy. It's a developing technology. While it can be very fun, it's not heavily regulated or always a safe environment for children.
By far, the biggest risk of allowing your child to use VR relates to other nefarious users. In VR's effort to be immersive, many platforms allow users to walk around and talk to each other as they might in real life. Social games or "metaverses" like VR Chat and Horizon Worlds are the biggest risk. Strangers can virtually approach your child and speak to them as they would in the real world, except now they have the mask or anonymity of VR. This means your child might hear or be exposed to content from other users that's not age appropriate.
There are many reports of sexual harassment, avatar groping, and even virtual gang rapes occurring in VR. Companies are taking measures to reduce these types of interactions. However, it's far from perfect.
This doesn't mean you should ban your kids from VR altogether. But you should make sure you understand what goes on in the games they're playing and be cautious of any socially focused experiences.
Beyond other users, not all games are child friendly. Some are violent or employ casino-like mechanics. This applies to any video game, not just VR video games. Make sure you check the ratings of any games installed on your child's VR device. Consider watching review or demo videos to see if you think it's age-appropriate.
Addiction and Mental Health
As experiences become more realistic and immersive, they may also be more addictive. It can be healthy for kids to make friends in VR. However, if your child is spending more time talking to their VR friends than their real-life friends, or they're spending an excessive amount of time online (greater than 1-2 hours a day), they may be at risk of developing more serious mental health issues. VR shouldn't be a crutch or coping mechanism to avoid real-world issues.
If you suspect your child is in VR or spending too much time online, consider restricting their time to a certain window of the day, with several no-VR days throughout the week. If your child cannot deal with the restricted times or exhibits other unusual behavior, consider consulting a mental health professional.
Guidelines for Parents
Now that you're aware of the risks of VR, here are some things you can do to protect your kids without taking it away entirely.
- Active Monitoring
- Actively watch your child as they use VR.
- Restrict VR use to a common area, such as the living/family room.
- If using a Meta Quest 2 or similar, you can "cast" the VR experience to your TV. Do this so you can easily see what they're doing in VR at a quick glance.
- Budget permitting, purchase a second VR headset and play the games with your child. Have them play with a responsible older sibling, or similar.
- Avoid Metaverses and Social Games
- These are difficult to monitor. Many restrict users to ages 13 or 18+ and don't have parental controls.
- Age Restrictions
- Many games are age restricted.
- You cannot even create a Meta account unless you're 13+.
- If your child is under this age, you will have to lie about their age when you create their account, or let them use your account. Otherwise, they won't really be able to do anything with their headset.
- This is done for legal purposes so Meta can't be held responsible if younger kids get hurt on their platforms.
- Again, the best thing to do is to actively monitor them.
- Education, Ground Rules, Expectations
- Before allowing your child to use a VR headset, explain your expectations beforehand.
- Outline how long they're allowed to use the VR headset each day.
- Explain why you need to monitor their activity, and have them cast the VR experience to the family TV.
- Only install games and apps that you approve of. Regularly make sure they haven't installed something without telling you.
- Consider only allowing them to play online games with their in-real-life friends or family.
- Basic stranger danger talk.
- Only Allow Offline/Single-Player Games
- Consider only allowing single-player games such as Beat Saber, Star Wars Stories, The Climb, Subnautica, and Boneworks if they'll be playing when you're not around.
As the technology grows, hopefully we get more parental controls and kid-friendly games from VR creators. For now, the best option is to actively monitor your kids in VR and any online experience.