Metaverse app turns users into legless avatars, who sometimes are child users. This can be problematic because of the existence of predators and a lack of oversight. (Source: Meta)

 Experts Say Meta’s ‘Embodied Internet’ May Prove Dangerous for Children

At first, it read like a, “Hey, you kids get off my lawn!” story. Then, the piece we found in got much more serious. The story is in regards to the Metaverse that has been making so many headlines lately for its potential to take over social media worlds.

However, as it is now, the metaverse might be dangerous to kids without more guardrails installed into it.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg and company built a social media empire over the past 18 years, but its flagship Facebook app has plateaued and its reputation has been battered by ceaseless waves of scandal over its handling of user data, its moderation of the content users’ posts, and its influence on public opinion and debate. In October, under renewed pressure from regulators in multiple countries over leaks that showed it seeming to prioritize business dominance over ethics and users’ well-being, Zuckerberg announced the rebranding from Facebook to Meta.

The early reviews of Horizon Worlds on the Oculus store read like a litany of complaints about rude behavior by unwelcome youngsters. The game had a rating of just over three out of five stars as of Feb. 4, with many users complaining about a lack of moderation. Similar complaints showed up on online forums about the app. Users interviewed by The Washington Post unanimously agreed that kids are a problem.

Imagine the wildly popular kids’ games “Minecraft” and “Roblox,” but in virtual reality — and, so far, with far fewer users, since the programs are available only via Meta’s own pricey Quest and Rift headsets. That potential audience, however, is growing fast. The Oculus companion app was, by some metrics, the most downloaded app in the United States over the Christmas holiday week, suggesting that the headset was a popular gift.

Kids Will Be Kids in Any Universe

The Meta app and the Oculus headset are one way to join the metaverse. Once there, users are represented by a cartoon avatar with half of a body. No legs on these avatars, but they can move around. Users interact with anyone else that is nearby. They speak into the headset microphone and the other avatars hear them. Unless they are blocked.

Kids in the metaverse, however, are acting out like kids. They’re putting their hands in people’s faces, being vulgar, and doing other things that are inappropriate. Kids are not supposed to be allowed on some of these platforms, but keeping them off is next to impossible.

The Dark Side of The Metaverse: Child Predators

Will Oremus who is the writer of this article, met an unsupervised child as soon as he entered the metaverse.  The child said he was using his parent’s account to wander around this digitally created world.

Experts say the presence of children in Meta’s fledgling metaverse raises a graver concern: that by mixing children with adult strangers in a largely self-moderated virtual world, the company is inadvertently creating a hunting ground for sexual predators. When new online forums arise that attract kids, sexual predators “are often among the first to arrive,” said Sarah Gardner, vice president of external affairs at Thorn, a tech nonprofit that focuses on protecting children from online sexual abuse.

“They see an environment that is not well protected and does not have clear systems of reporting. They’ll go there first to take advantage of the fact that it is a safe ground for them to abuse or groom kids.”

Meta, formerly Facebook, appears to have done little to address the possibility of child-grooming specifically, despite throwing huge amounts of resources into the development of the metaverse.

This is a vastly more versatile way for people to use the internet, social media, and various metaverse apps. There are some guardrails. There are some improvements already being introduced to make your visit more enjoyable. But as of now, it is not kid-safe by any stretch of the imagination.

Meta’s Milian said the company designed the app with safety in mind, pointing to a November blog post from Chief Technology Officer Andrew Bosworth on keeping people safe in VR and beyond.

“Technology that opens up new possibilities can also be used to cause harm, and we must be mindful of that as we design, iterate, and bring products to market,” Bosworth wrote.

This is a very important article on an extremely untested morphing of the social media we have been using and blending it into Virtual Reality. It should be read carefully by anyone thinking of joining the metaverse. And more importantly for parents who need to devise the best way to keep their minors safe from digital predators.