Can the Metaverse be a safe space for teens?

October 10, 2022

Roxanne Denman

Navigating the new Virtual Reality for concerned parents

Worrying about the safety of your child is not only normal - it's instinctive. Activities that appear innocent now expose themselves as potential risks, quickly becoming unwelcome threats in the eyes of a loving parent. Although protective instincts are exceptionally normal and healthy, we are expected to loosen this grip as our children enter their teenage years. Social and general life skills develop during puberty, and disrupting this process can prove detrimental to a child. As millennial parents, we’re even more cautious about avoiding the continuation of generational trauma. With unsolicited parenting advice, and the unavoidable guilt that it brings - where do we draw the line?

In an ever-changing world, letting go has become increasingly difficult for parents. We feel an overwhelming responsibility to keep our children safe. Suicide rates have increased, pandemics have contributed to feelings of depression and isolation, and don’t even mention online abuse, freak accidents outside our control, and threats of abductions.

Now, we’re not here to give you a list of all the possible threats that lurk online, you’re probably well-versed already. We’re simply here to shine a light on something that as a parent, you need to be aware of.

While online activity has been the norm for almost 20 years, the premise of accessible Virtual Reality is relatively new. We have no instinctive knowledge and experience in this developing realm and will need to navigate it simultaneously with our progressive, tech-minded youth. While we are no strangers to scrolling, the arrival of the Metaverse has added another potential threat. Can we protect our children from online dangers without invading their privacy?

Immersive. The keyword used in most marketing material for Meta. Virtual. Another word used when referring to Mark Zuckerberg's online creation of a socially explorative online experience. What is the Metaverse? How will it affect the online safety of day-to-day users, and more importantly, how can we keep our youth safe from predatory online attacks?  

Firstly, let's talk about the concept. The Metaverse is an augmented 3D reality that heightens social connection in a sociologically struggling world. Social media and rapid technological advancements have subtly altered how humans socialize. The premise of online social interaction is no new concept, but how we will be doing it is. Recovering from a global pandemic that isolated many, we welcome a new world that will allow us to interact on platforms that can physically protect us without leading to damaging loneliness and isolation. It could be a transformative step in the right direction. But with this, we need to face a host of complications. Cyber threats, cyberbullying, harassment, trafficking, and even virtual rape become threats when exploring the possibility of roaming the Metaverse.

Why should parents be worried?

While all individuals face exposure to online privacy breaches, socially explorative pre-teens and teens are especially vulnerable. Being socially curious is second nature to teenagers, and they can now entertain this trait by having access to the world at their fingertips. Literally. This has opened the world up for them at a swift and sophisticated pace, but we would be remiss not to be concerned at the gateways of dangers it presents.

There is no singular way to gain access to the Metaverse. Children can access the Metaverse via online platforms like Minecraft and Roblox, equally popular platforms in their own right Fresh off the heat of a global pandemic, parents tend to find themselves encouraging their children to socialize, even if it is online and possibly unmonitored. The Metaverse has the potential to unleash social intelligence and creativity in a way we are yet to experience or comprehend. Children need stimulation and fun, and the Metaverse has the potential to deliver this in a stress-free and safe environment.

Physical and virtual risks

The threat of the Metaverse can be summed up as this. We just don’t know yet. Teenagers can be exposed to explicit content too early, harming their sexual development by creating unrealistic expectations of sexual relationships, increasing the risk of addiction, and can normalize sexually violent behaviors. Cyberbullying is another serious concern. Kids are already marked as easy targets and harassed by anonymous online profiles. Many studies and real-life scenarios have revealed the devastating consequences of bullying, which can lead to depression, and even suicide. The Metaverse has the potential to become addictive to children because of the release of dopamine, resulting from its immersive and engaging nature.

Physical issues may arise from VR headsets and can lead to short-term health issues like nausea, headaches, and dizziness. Although this is usually temporary, the jury is still out and how long-term unlimited use can affect neurological development.

How do we let go?

After revealing some of the dangers, do we still want to risk exposing our youth? We must remember that allowing teenagers to explore the virtual world creates a situational and controlled band of safety. Unfortunately, this safety band can snap, but we can take steps to keep them safe.

Let’s discuss a few tips on staying safe in the vastly unknown Metaverse.

Start by making it age appropriate

Make sure your children are old enough to use the Metaverse. Kids under thirteen should not have access to their own devices or accounts, and use of the Metaverse should be under strict supervision if they use it at all. Think of it this way. It was Friday night in 1998. Your parents have just rented a few movies from Blockbuster. One is age-appropriate, and the other is set to be viewed once you’re in bed. You beg to stay up an hour later than your bedtime, and they agree - but under supervision. The Metaverse is akin to that movie!

Lay a foundation

Set clear rules for using the Metaverse and reinforce these rules. Boundaries create a safer experience for all users, especially children.

Time limits

Limit exposure to the Metaverse. Constant interaction releases dopamine which can lead to addiction. Limiting the time spent in the Metaverse can help nurture a healthy online ratio for teens.

Control without being overbearing

Use parental controls as far as possible. Restrict access to avoid interaction with harmful content. If used correctly, parental controls can protect children across digital platforms. Keep in mind: teenagers are likely to rebel against strict enforcement. Instead, use subtle measures and clever diversion tactics to veer them away from the fact that you control what they see. Remember when your parents said no to watching that R-rated movie - and you did it anyway, only this time it was behind their back? You were probably left with more questions than you wanted - but you rebelled because you felt that they were being unreasonable.

Teach them about respect: Become a voice for others and guide your children in acceptable online behavior. Emphasize the importance of being respectful of other users.  

What do we think?

As we learn more about the Metaverse, we can assess behaviors and how they can be altered to protect our children constantly, enhancing their safety. Overall, protecting children in the Metaverse is a shared responsibility. If parents keep track of potential dangers and take the necessary measures to keep their kids safe, and we keep big companies accountable, we can ensure a long and prosperous relationship with the new normal of online social interaction.

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