Browse all articles

What Are Kids Doing in the Metaverse?

Our new report shares the details families, companies, and lawmakers need to keep kids safe.

A boy wearing VR goggles looking to the right.

The metaverse is a hot topic right now. Newspapers are writing about it, tech corporations are investing in it, and children are in it (or will be soon). According to our new report, The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens, 2021, 17% of children age 8 to 18 report having a VR headset, and about one in five tweens (22%) and one in four teens (27%) have ever tried virtual reality. At the same time, virtual reality (VR) technologies, from headsets for the face to haptic suits for the body, are developing quickly, allowing users to experience the metaverse in ways that are physically and psychologically new.

There are many potential benefits for kids and teens from these systems, ranging from creative play to immersive learning. But the harms are not yet fully understood. How can the metaverse and VR threaten the physical well-being of children? What are the privacy implications of these increasingly connected, largely unregulated digital worlds? Where do misinformation and manipulation enter the metaverse?

Building on the research compiled in our VR 101 report, Common Sense has released a new white paper to address these and other urgent concerns. "Kids and the Metaverse: What Parents, Policymakers, and Companies Need to Know" draws on interviews and studies from leading experts in virtual and augmented reality to identify risks that the metaverse poses for young users.

We explore three categories of existing risks:

  1. Physiological dangers. Navigating the metaverse through VR can induce nausea, eye strain, and other forms of "cybersickness" among kids. VR headsets can blind users to real-world obstacles.
  2. Privacy violations. Platforms can collect children's nonverbal data as VR systems record facial and eye movements. The sensitive biometric information of young users could be exploited for commercial gain, allowing ad firms to use involuntary physical reactions to track and target their internal desires.
  3. False information and manipulation. The metaverse's one-to-one, immersive conditions make it easier for bad actors to persuade, mislead, and manipulate. The deceptive possibilities of bots, "deepfakes," and AR-altered realities are daunting, especially for tweens, who will have trouble discerning what or who is real.

The report also lays out two areas of potential harm that need further exploration:

  1. Sexual content and abuse. In the metaverse, young users can regularly come across virtual strip clubs, sexual grooming, simulated sex acts, and rape threats. Because VR is designed to immerse the entire body, abuse has the potential to be more traumatic, if and when it occurs, than in other online formats.
  2. Psychological risks. Signs of a relationship exist between the VR technologies underlying the metaverse and addiction, increased aggression, and dissociation from reality.

What does this mean for anyone who wants to protect kids in the metaverse? Here are our recommendations for how companies, parents and caregivers, and lawmakers can protect kids and teens in the metaverse:

  • Companies need to design VR devices and metaverse systems with children in mind. That means kid-friendly headsets, effective safety mechanisms, and minimal, user-centric data collection practices.
  • Policymakers need to invest in VR and metaverse research, prevent platforms from manipulating children online, and enforce baseline privacy requirements. Legislation that has already been proposed—CAMRA, KIDS, and COPPA 2.0, for example—should apply to the metaverse.
  • Parents should become informed metaverse consumers. They don't need to know everything about the metaverse, but they should try to understand how their kids may engage with it.

The metaverse is here and moving fast. It will continue to bring kids into unknown digital territories every day. Helped by VR technologies, the metaverse will bring online and offline worlds closer together, a collision that will be exciting and productive in some aspects, but intimidating, confusing, and potentially harmful in others. Companies and lawmakers will need to be proactive as they design systems and safeguards. Parents and caregivers, meanwhile, will need to talk about metaverse experiences with their kids. To be ready for these conversations (and the metaverse's next developments), check out the full report.

Nelson Reed

Nelson Reed is a policy consultant at Common Sense. His work centers on global privacy legislation, digital citizenship, and broadband access.