The Metaverse Is Open for Business … and Cyber Predators.

Kids are sneaking into the metaverse in droves, and it’s exposing them to threats we’ve never seen before.

Cyberpredators in the metaverse

Over the summer, a New York Times reporter named Kashmir Hill was hanging out in the Plaza — the metaverse’s central lounge — when a man in a gray suit approached her. His name was Dustin, a metaverse newbie. Dustin invited Kashmir to shoot zombies in a virtual mall, one of the thousands of “worlds” inside the metaverse.1

Kashmir noticed immediately that there was something unusual about the undead in their mall — they were all kids. When she mentioned this to her new friend, Dustin fessed up. He wasn’t actually a man. Like the mini zombies in the mall, he was a kid — 11 years old, to be exact. (Kashmir was 41, by the way.)

Not so creepy in context. But let’s turn that dynamic upside down for a second and imagine Kashmir Hill was posing as an 11-year-old kid and she found little Dustin in the Plaza alone and invited him to play in an abandoned mall.

If you’re a parent and that scenario just sent a powerful surge of revulsion, rage, and parent protection power coursing through your veins, I’ve got news for you: That’s just the tip of the metaverse iceberg.

Did You Know? For plenty of us parents, the metaverse is still terra incognita, despite the fact that Meta says it’s already sold 15 million headsets.2 That’s because Horizon Worlds, Meta’s VR social platform, is still only about a year old.

Dad, Mom, Welcome to the Metaverse

If this is the first time you’re hearing about the metaverse, here’s the gist. Instead of posting to friends like you do on Facebook, in the metaverse you hang out with them in real time inside elaborate virtual spaces. All you need to get inside is a $400 Meta headset.

You won’t be alone. The metaverse is already bustling with “meta-preneurs” selling virtual wares, startups holding mid-week check-ins, and even celebrities like Ariana Grande giving concerts embedded within gaming platforms like Fortnite, if you can believe that.

Of course, you might have no place to go and end up just dawdling around the Plaza, where you’ll run into strangers whose avatars, like little Dustin the zombie slayer’s, mask their real identities and ages.

FYI: When we talk about the metaverse, we usually mean Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse. It was the first to go live. But over the next few years, as competing “metaverses” from companies like Google and Microsoft go online, we’ll be able to choose where we spend our virtual time.

The Metaverse’s Many Lurking Dangers

We’ve got oodles of research pointing to one indisputable fact: Too much screen time is really bad for our kids. It’s chipping away at their attention span, sense of security, self-esteem, and even their physical health. And that’s the Web 2.0 — the web you and I know.

In the metaverse, these familiar issues will probably get much worse for our children. But there are other, greater concerns for parents — concerns that are so new there are no studies and few expert recommendations to guide us.

Cyber Groping Is Already Happening

Dangerous sleazeballs can’t literally reach out and touch our kids’ physical bodies while they’re in the metaverse, but the hyperrealistic interactions will make it feel like the real thing. These aren’t text-based DMs, don’t forget. Interactions in Horizon Worlds are face-to-face encounters where anything that doesn’t catch the eye of a moderator goes. We’ve already got firsthand reports about how traumatic metaverse groping can be for adults. Our children are much more vulnerable and ill-prepared to deal with the consequences.

Megadoses of Screen Time

The user data is already in. People lose track of time inside the metaverse. In fact, they spend so many hours wandering around Horizon Worlds that many users end up literally plugging their headsets into the wall so that when their batteries run out, they can play on seamlessly. There’s even a term for it — “plug and play.” If you think you’ve got troubles setting parental controls for your kids, wait until they disappear for hours at a time inside Mark Zuckerberg’s virtual playground.

Inside the Metaverse: In half a day inside the metaverse, the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) recorded about 100 violations of Meta’s VR policies on racist, violent, and sexually graphic language. That translates into one violation every 7 minutes.

Kids May Feel More Lonely, Detached, and Depressed

Most adults have experienced the flipside of social media: unlimited connections, not much real contact. Our kids have, too. But their brains are still developing, so they don’t have the coping mechanisms to deal with it. Medical science doesn’t have the hard data yet, but top researchers, like Albert Rizzo, director of medical virtual reality at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, believe that children immersed in the metaverse will end up even lonelier, unhappier, and more detached from reality than they already are.

Cyber Predators Will Take Advantage of All of These Factors to Groom Victims

Let’s recap. We’ve got millions of vulnerable, naive, bored kids. We unleash them (mostly unmonitored) in a virtual world where predators are posing as children. They’re in there for hours, to the point that they begin to lose track of what’s real and what isn’t.

That’s the perfect storm for “sexploitation” on a scale we’ve never seen before. And, as we’ve reported, dark web cyber predators are rampant already.

What can you do about it? Fortunately, lots.

Did You Know? There are thousands of “worlds” inside Meta’s metaverse, but you can fit only about a dozen people into the same world at the same time due to limits in computer power.

How You Can Protect Your Kids Inside the Metaverse (If Meta Won’t)

Now we know what happens when children are left to their own devices inside the metaverse. Here’s a three-step action plan to protect yours:

1. Keep Your Kids Out of the Metaverse

You need to be at least 13 years old to get into the metaverse, and you need a headset. Does your 12-year-old have $399 lying about? No? Then they can’t have one. If you’ve already got a Meta headset in the family and you suspect little Alison is moonlighting as a 50-year-old dentist named Bob, you need to uninstall or block the Horizon Worlds app on her devices.

2. Sit Them Down for the “Scams and Predators” Talk

There are more than 15 million Meta headsets floating around the world. Kids, being kids, may use one to sneak into the metaverse, so they need to be prepared. Talking to your kids about the dangers of the web — including the extremely uncomfortable subject of sexual predators — is still the best way to keep them safe until they’re old enough to recognize and sidestep predators themselves. We suggest doing this as early as possible. Kindergarten is not too early.

3. Monitor Your Teenagers Inside and Outside the Metaverse

If you buy your older child a headset for Christmas, keep an eye on them (maybe more than you do when they disappear inside Fortnite), and try your best to keep the conversation open. Understandably, your teen might not want to talk to you about their adventures in the metaverse. Fair enough. But you trusted them enough to buy them a VR headset. Sitting down for a catch-up every now and then isn’t much of a price to pay. If you notice any serious changes in behavior, you’ll want to step in.

Final Thoughts

Mark Zuckerberg is plowing into the future of VR like Captain Ahab — all sails up, all hands on deck. He’s doing this at the expense of our children, who are metaverse superusers despite the fact that children aren’t technically allowed on the platform. Not a great grand opening for us folks with kids.

But let’s not be naive. We know what Meta’s business model is. It’s the same as Facebook’s: Make gazillions of dollars, and leave Microsoft and Google in the dust. Until profit takes a back seat to digital safety, we parents have no choice but to proactively protect our children.

Impossible? Fortunately, no — not if you keep your kids out of the metaverse until they’re old enough to be there. Younger children in particular need to know how to spot a predator and what to do if they encounter one (that’s a talk you need to have). Finally, if your older kids do venture into the metaverse by themselves, keep tabs on them. Are they acting strange? They might need a time out.

Citations
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  1. The New York Times. (2022, Oct 7). This Is Life in the Metaverse.
    https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/07/technology/metaverse-facebook-horizon-worlds.html

  2. Android Central. (2022, June 7). Looks like the Oculus Quest 2 is still selling better than the Xbox.
    https://www.androidcentral.com/gaming/virtual-reality/quest-2-units-sold-spring-2022