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This article features a case study which includes details that some readers may find upsetting. Please note: this article should not be shared with children and young people.
With Facebook changing its name to ‘Meta’ and news outlets releasing investigative reports around the online safety of virtual worlds, you may have found yourself wondering “What is the Metaverse?” over the last few months. You aren’t alone! Around 33% of UK adults still aren’t sure what the Metaverse is.
We know that any new technology can be overwhelming and even confusing, especially if you’re still getting used to your latest phone update! Our online safety experts have created this overview to help you understand what the Metaverse is, how it can be used, and why it might be appealing to young people. Keep reading to learn what risks could be associated with it and our top tips for keeping those in your care safe.
It’s important when learning about the Metaverse to remember that it is a concept that is still in development. This means most news reports and media stories, including this online safety article, are subject to change and may not cover every aspect as the Metaverse continues to evolve.
What is the Metaverse?
The Metaverse is a shared virtual space for users across the internet to access content, play games, purchase items, and build environments. It incorporates digital experiences such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and blockchain into a constant virtual space.
Augmented Reality (AR) – a digitally created experience that enhances the physical world with computer-generated graphics. A popular example is the hit game Pokémon Go, in which players use their phone camera to ‘find’ Pokémon around them.
Blockchain – an online list of digital transaction record. It is essentially a virtual wallet that records purchases and sales, and enables digital money (called cryptocurrency) to exist.
Imagine you come home from work or school after a long day and login to the Metaverse. You’re able to access an ‘online universe’ where the limits of your day-to-day life disappear in an instant. Want to fly on a broomstick or own a pet lion? Want to play chess with someone from across the world or have a picnic in the Colosseum? You can do all of this in the Metaverse while also interacting with other people – even if you’re just in your living room.
The true aim of the metaverse is to transform the way that people connect with each other online. However, the Metaverse is largely a concept that is currently in development. It is not an individual product that is owned by one company. The term ‘metaverse’ is being used by companies involved in its development, like Meta (Facebook) and Google, but it is a wider network that hopes to eventually connect various platforms and virtual spaces.
We are likely to continue hearing more and more about the Metaverse as it grows and changes.
Is the Metaverse the same as VR?
You may have seen recent media coverage around the Metaverse and virtual reality. VR is a digitally created experience that completely immerses the user in a simulated world. This is typically facilitated by handheld controllers and a headset worn directly over the eyes. VR is a popular tool used to access and explore the Metaverse, but they are not the same thing. Essentially – if the Metaverse is an ocean, then VR is like a submarine used to explore it.
The main idea for the Metaverse is to create social experiences in an open world across the entire internet with unlimited users. This will involve virtual avatars, identities, and belongings that can be taken everywhere across the Metaverse. The hope is that every user will be able to digitally exist in their own customisable reality and explore others.
Avatar: a customisable icon or interactive character that represents a user in the digital world. This can be a two dimensional, like a user icon on a forum, or three dimensional, like Roblox game characters.
There are multiple ways to access the Metaverse in its current state. It’s accessible via computers, mobiles, and gaming consoles. For an immersive, ‘liveable’ experience, VR equipment is the most popular option, but it is not necessary to experience the Metaverse.
Actually, it’s likely that the child in your care has already accessed a Metaverse experience through platforms like Roblox, Minecraft, or Fortnite! On these platforms, users can chat and interact with other users’ avatars, as well as create and play a vast number of games – all on the same platform.
Remember – as it is still in development, the Metaverse will undergo many changes over the next few years. Some experts believe we won’t see the ‘real’ Metaverse for quite a while. To keep up with any new developments and changes to the Metaverse, make sure to sign up to our Safeguarding Hub newsletter!
What does it allow young people to do?
In the same way older generations saw dial-up internet transform into high-speed, children and young people today will experience the early stages of Metaverse technology. As it becomes more developed, the Metaverse will grow more appealing to younger generations, especially if it is similar to platforms they are familiar with (like Fortnite). Young people will be able to:
Create their own avatar to identify themselves in the Metaverse.
Interact with other people (in avatar form) from all over the world.
Explore and engage with different locations and places.
Build their own products, structures, and worlds.
Purchase products, structures, and worlds (for example, NFTs).
NFTs: non-fungible tokens, which are unique digital assets that hold value. These cannot be divided or traded.
Once a Metaverse user owns something, they will be able to take it across the entire Metaverse with them to multiple platforms and spaces. This is a big difference from purchased items only existing on a singular platform. This is starting to take form in the NFT craze sweeping the internet. They are believed by some to be the art of future Metaverse homes. Some young people may say they want to start investing in their ‘future’ by purchasing or creating popular NFTs.
This study includes examples of harassment that may be upsetting to some readers.
Horizon Worlds is a virtual social space by Meta (formerly Facebook). It is thought to be an early example of concepts the Metaverse is aiming to achieve with further development. While it is only available in Canada and the US, it will become available for UK consumers once beta testing has been completed.
In Horizon Worlds, players can create an avatar, talk to friends, play games, collaborate with others, and build their own worlds, mini-games, and activities. Users can access Horizon Worlds through a Meta Quest headset (a requirement to play). They can also access live events through Horizon Venues, a connected VR app. Most of this technology is a work in progress, but platforms like this are a great example of the new type of online socialising the Metaverse is aiming to achieve.
However, just because this technology is ‘new’ does not mean we should assume it is ‘safe’. Research by the Centre for Countering Hate in December 2021 showed that users were exposed to inappropriate content on Horizon Worlds including bullying, sexual harassment, and abuse – some of which involved minors. One researcher reported that her avatar on Horizon Worlds was “virtually raped” by three to four male avatars who surrounded her while verbally and sexually harassing her. After multiple reports, Meta introduced a Personal Boundary feature that is on by default for all players. There are also blocking and reporting features, as well as a ‘Safety Zone’ feature that can help a player immediately exit an uncomfortable situation.
Horizon Worlds is 18+, but there have been multiple reports of children and young people accessing it through their parent or carer’s account.
Complexity – As the Metaverse is still conceptual, it remains unclear what impact it will have on society, especially on children and young people. It is a popular buzzword in news outlets and social media platforms, even if there is confusion over how ‘real’ it is. This could mean the development goal of the Metaverse is not being taken as seriously as it should be by consumers.
Age Verification – Internet platforms (like social media and gaming) that use VR and AR have been shown to lack effective age verification methods. Technology is often shared between multiple family members, and reports of children accessing 18+ platforms with their parents’ accounts have been high.
Lack of effective moderation or privacy controls – Many of the social environments used in the Metaverse remain unmoderated, as the idea is to allow users to freely interact. This makes it difficult to develop effective privacy controls. There are options to report and block other users, but researchers studying early Metaverse platforms found their reports did not receive a response.
Avatars – An avatar is not an accurate representation of its user. This can create a false sense of security during interactions, especially for children and young people, who may be more likely to see a digital character as non-threatening.
Escapism – Many users find things like VR, AR, and gaming a welcome distraction from the stresses of life. This also applies to children and young people who may be experiencing difficulties. It can be helpful to ‘switch off’ from the real world by ‘switching on’ a digital one. However, there is a possibility this could lead to unhealthy habits, which could have very real consequences.
Engaging and current – New technology is seductive, especially for children and young people. As the Metaverse is being developed by companies who are responsible for many social media and gaming platforms, the appeal of the Metaverse will always match (and likely inform) popular digital trends.
Persuasive design – One of the appeals of the Metaverse is how immersive and expansive it is. As technology continues to develop, the ability to create and explore will also evolve into an endless opportunity to be creative and engage. A young person could be at risk of excessive use, spending, and unhealthy habits without screen time or spending limits.
Physical side effects – Nausea, disorientation, eye strain, and headaches are all common symptoms of VR and AR use. If a young person is experiencing any of these symptoms while accessing the Metaverse, it’s time to take a break.
Mental distress – Using the Metaverse may make a young person feel things that are not real, such as worry for safety or romantic attachments. This may result in negative effects on their mental health.
Physical injury – If a young person is using VR to access the Metaverse, they may not be visually aware of their physical surroundings. Bumps, falls, and broken bones are all potential injuries if the space around a user is not clear.
Sudden fear or panic – As the Metaverse uses technology that purposefully manipulates the user’s senses, they may begin to feel anxious, fearful, or panicked. This is especially true of VR video games and interactions.
Exposure to inappropriate content – Without appropriate guardrails in place, there is potential for children and young people to be exposed to graphic sexual content, racism, sexism, and displays of violence in the Metaverse.
Grooming – As adults and children can be in the same virtual place at the same time without censorship or intervention, the social aspects the Metaverse could create an environment for grooming (when an adult builds a relationship with a young person based on trust and connection to manipulate, exploit, and abuse them). Many professionals are worried there will be a spike in this behaviour if developers do not work better safeguards into the design of the Metaverse.
Harassment – Reports of virtual bullying, sexual harassment, and violence could occur in the Metaverse (as evidenced by the numerous reports on Horizon Worlds beta testing within its first few weeks). While this may come from strangers, there is also a possibility that real-world friends could become virtual tormentors.
Top Tips to Keep the Child in Your Care Safer
Keep track of any new Metaverse developments, especially in privacy and safety. Many big developers will be releasing new information and products to do with the Metaverse. It’s important to know what will be safe for those in your care to use.
Decide on whether your child can access the Metaverse. You can do this independently or in conversation with the child in your care. Ultimately, it is up to you as a parent or carer to enforce any rules around use, especially as many of the platforms have differing age verification rules and parental controls.
Introduce healthy screen-time limits and encourage breaks. Any screen use can put strain on the eyes, which may result in headaches, migraines, or motion sickness. Discuss and agree on healthy screen time limits and habits, like starting on 20-minute intervals with a gradual increase.
Empower your child to protect their personal information. It might be helpful to remind them why they should not share any personal details (school, location, surname, age) with anyone they do not know in real life, even if they feel comfortable.
Encourage accessing the Metaverse in public spaces at home. If the young person in your care is keen to be online, it’s better that they do this in a place where you can keep an eye on them. Explain that this will help you see them use this new technology in a responsible way.
Talk to the young people in your care about harmful content. If they feel uncomfortable or have experienced something upsetting, remind them they can speak to you or another Trusted Adult.
Discuss the ‘novelty factor’ of the Metaverse. This technology is new, exciting, and popular on social media and news outlets. Remind them that it is still a work in progress. Reinforce the importance of making smart decisions when trying out any new technology they may not fully understand.
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