In the fast-paced world of technology, two recent developments have raised significant concerns about the future of children’s digital safety. Meta’s decision to lower the minimum age for its virtual reality (VR) headsets from 13 to 10 years old, and the announcement that Roblox, a platform popular among young users, is coming to Meta Quest VR headsets, have created a potent mix of opportunity and risk. The decision, which comes despite growing scrutiny over the impact of social media on young users, has raised questions about the potential risks and benefits of early exposure to VR and other extended reality (XR) technologies. In fact just this year US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned that he believes 13 is too young for children to be on social media platforms because although sites allow children of that age to join, kids are still “developing their identity.”
Implications of Meta’s Age Policy Change
The implications of Meta’s policy change are far-reaching. By lowering the minimum age, Meta will start collecting data on children as young as 10, raising significant privacy concerns. While Meta emphasizes its dedication to safeguarding data—restricting default data collection to age, location, and language and giving parents more control over personalization and account management—it’s about more than just privacy. This decision allows Meta to influence the educational content for 5th-grade students, a departure from the previous standard of grades 8-9. As XR education becomes more commonplace, the potential for misuse in content delivery and influence warrants attention.
As per Meta, “We have previously set out how it will be educators, government bodies and third-party developers, not Meta, developing education apps and choosing how and when to use these in schools”. For example, Nick Clegg’s essay “How the Metaverse can transform education” states: A US company, Lighthaus, has developed a curriculum-aligned science app called Nano through a grant from the US National Institutes of Health, and is already reporting statistically significant gains in students’ interest in and enjoyment of science. The US Department of Education also ran the EdSim Challenge, a competition to identify and reward “immersive simulations that transfer academic, technical, and employability skills”. In Poland, the Ministry for Education is supporting a school project by VRHeroes, which teaches students about the Warsaw Uprising.” Clegg emphasizes the pivotal role of teachers, stating, “Skilled educators remain the key to inspiring students. It’s crucial for governments to pave the way with curriculum evolution, digital literacy programs, and backing educators to harness this technology for maximum impact.”
Moreover, there are additional risks associated with data collection in XR-based education. A recent study by the University of California Berkeley demonstrates that VR applications can record embodied behaviors of individuals, which, when combined with other data, can uniquely identify them with high accuracy. This bypasses normal privacy protections and poses a threat to the anonymity and privacy of individuals within large groups. The study reveals that, even with minimal motion data, individuals can be identified with remarkable precision.
These findings highlight the urgent need for robust privacy safeguards and comprehensive policies to address the privacy risks specific to XR-based education. From headsets, other wearables, related sensors, and AI, Metaverse-related technologies are now capable of gathering spatial data and untold quantities of individual biometric data, potentially including everything from a person’s location and skin color to their eye and hand positions at any given split second. However comprehensive regulations are not in place to protect humans in the loop and societies in the loop. Currently, the United States Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and other online children’s protection regulations around the globe do not consider the spatial and embodied data that is inherently collected with XR. Striking a balance between the benefits of immersive technologies and protecting the privacy and anonymity of young users is of utmost importance.
Roblox’s Arrival on VR
The arrival of Roblox on Meta Quest VR headsets, a platform with over 150 million monthly active users, a large majority of whom are children and teenagers, further amplifies these concerns. Roblox’s immersive and interactive nature, coupled with its popularity among young users, makes it fertile ground for potential manipulation and exploitation. As Roblox rolls out on Quest, there’s an immediate need for proactive strategies that educate users about proper conduct. This must be paired with rigorous enforcement. Four years ago, Tami Bhaumik, VP of Civility and Partnerships, launched Roblox’s Civility Initiative. Today, she’s striving to cultivate a worldwide network of internet safety leaders, ensuring that Roblox remains a bastion of trust, safety, and respect through responsible digital citizenship.
“The initiative was born out of all of my conversations with parents, kids, teens, and the realization that parents and teachers really didn’t know how to talk or guide their kids through any sort of negative event that might happen online,” Bhaumik told Forbes, “Some parents didn’t even know there were parental controls on Roblox. How many times have you heard, ‘If you see something that makes you feel uncomfortable, go to a trusted adult or parent or teacher?’ We need to make sure our parents and teachers are also trained in digital citizenship.”
The Virtual Economy and Children
Roblox not only introduces children to the virtual world but also to the concept of virtual economies through its Robux currency. While Robux allows users to purchase in-game items, the challenge lies in the fact that children often have zero to little understanding of economics, money management, and the potential risks associated with virtual economies. This creates an environment where they may be vulnerable to exploitation and scams.
Policy-Related Concerns and Shared Responsibility
“The intersection of technology and childhood is a delicate one,” says Burcu Kilic, a Tech Policy Advocate. “The future of our children is at stake. We need robust policies that not only foster innovation but also prioritize the safety and well-being of our young users. It’s not just about creating a vibrant digital future, but ensuring that this future is safe and inclusive for our children.” The safety of children in immersive environments should be a shared responsibility, relieving parents from bearing the burden alone. Policymakers, technology developers, educational institutions, and society must collaborate to establish robust policies, guidelines, and frameworks (e.g., Guardians & Shield Framework by XRSI) that prioritize the well-being of young users. This approach recognizes the complexity of the digital landscape and ensures a holistic effort to safeguard children in these environments.
Importance of Comprehensive Research and Responsible Frameworks
As described by Dr. Julia A. Scott, the Exec lead of XRSI’s Medical XR Advisory Council, “Therapeutics for children through the medium of XR are designed for a specific and limited purpose, within a closed system. They take into account the physical and psychological safety of the young user. The activities and data protections of a child in XR for medical or health purposes are categorically different from entertainment platforms that may simply have ‘age-appropriate recommendations’ and track extensive data on youth.”
Unanswered questions remain on the impact of XR and virtual worlds on brain development, perception and coordination, and socio-emotional competencies. Research to date demonstrates that younger children are not as able to adapt to the perceptual shifts of VR. However, longer-use studies have not been completed to address the impact of regular usage in middle childhood. Examining the outcomes and impacts in pediatric, and medical XR practices may guide frameworks for education and entertainment sectors.
The Need for Comprehensive Research and Policy in the Age of VR
Furthermore, it is crucial to highlight that XRSI contributed to and supported the Children and Media Research Advancement (CAMRA) Act, a significant legislative effort introduced by Senator Markey and bipartisan colleagues. The CAMRA Act directs the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Health and Human Services to spearhead a comprehensive research program on the effects of technology and media on infants, children, and adolescents, encompassing cognitive, physical, and socio-emotional development. This research is particularly pertinent in the context of emerging technologies such as VR, especially as companies, like Meta, lower their age limit to 10, opening access to younger children. Moreover, the expansion of platforms like Roblox, with its 10 and up (E10+) policy, into the VR space raises specific risks for children. Despite recognizing the need for research, progress in understanding the scientific implications of immersive technologies on children remains limited. Robust scientific investigations are imperative to inform evidence-based guidelines and ensure the safety and well-being of children in the rapidly evolving digital landscape. The global community must prioritize research efforts to understand the effects of VR and immersive experiences on young people and develop comprehensive evidence-based policies that mitigate potential risks while fostering the responsible and safe use of these technologies.
Finding the Right Approach
The question now is how to respond to this development. Should there be a zero-tolerance policy under a certain age, or should we create a framework for a sliding scale of tracking/access depending on age groups? While a zero-tolerance policy offers simplicity and prevents companies like Meta from creeping into privacy, it may not be the most practical solution.
A sliding scale, on the other hand, acknowledges the inevitable use of technology by the public and provides best practices for different age groups. However, it requires more complex information and could potentially lead to ethical dilemmas. The challenge lies in contextualizing these policies based on use cases. For instance, a social VR for entertainment can have baseline restrictions, but the same age limit cannot apply to MedicalXR.
Safeguarding Children in Immersive Digital Environments
To address these concerns, X Reality Safety Intelligence (XRSI) is working on a comprehensive Child Safety framework called Guardians & Shield. This framework aims to develop a toolkit and guidelines to safeguard children in immersive digital environments. By combining a mixed-methods research approach, engaging with key stakeholders, and raising awareness about the risks faced by children in immersive environments, XRSI strives to create a safe and inclusive digital future for children.
Empowering Parents and Caregivers
While policies and frameworks are crucial, it is also important for parents and caregivers to stay informed and engaged. Common Sense Media provides valuable guidance on VR experiences, and their recommendations can serve as a starting point for parents navigating the virtual landscape. Additionally, considering the specific guidance on platforms like Roblox can help parents make informed decisions about their children’s digital experiences.
In conclusion, as Kavya Pearlman, Founder and CEO of X Reality Safety Intelligence (XRSI), emphasizes, “Technology has the power to revolutionize education and create incredible opportunities for our children. However, we must stop experimenting on young people in the name of innovation and stop putting the burden solely on parents and guardians in the name of safety. What we need is to share the responsibility among big tech, policymakers, developers, parents, and children to get this right. It is crucial that we proceed with caution and not dive headfirst into uncharted waters without clear scientific proof that these technologies will not harm the mental and physical health of our young generation.”
The confluence of Meta’s age policy change, Roblox’s arrival on VR, and the challenges of the virtual economy demand our attention. It calls for robust policies, thoughtful frameworks, and active engagement from all stakeholders involved. By prioritizing the safety and well-being of our children, we can ensure that the digital landscape they navigate is one that fosters growth, learning, and responsible use of immersive technologies. Let us tread this path carefully and shape a future that truly benefits our young users.