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To Help or To Harm: the Potential for Virtual Reality to Shape Future Generations

The rapid development of artificial intelligence (AI) is already starting to change the world. Advances in AI have made it possible to completely transform the user experience, and the demand is only growing. With the rising popularity of virtual reality (VR) headsets, more users are being introduced to this revolutionary technology at an earlier age. Research shows there are around 171 million people currently using VR worldwide, and out of those users, the vast majority are teenagers or younger. 

Over the past year, technology companies such as Meta began lowering the age restrictions for its VR apps to reach younger audiences, and while there are some restrictions in place now to ensure the safe use of these devices, this technology still poses a major threat to these audiences. The use of Virtual Reality technology can be beneficial for children if used responsibly, however, more action needs to be taken to better protect these audiences from the dangers of this disruptive technology. 

Online Safety in the Digital Age 

VR is not new.

The idea of using VR has been studied since the 1990s. Fast forward to today, healthcare companies, schools, and households are all harnessing AI-powered technology, and younger audiences are among some of the most frequent users. 

All technology generally has both positive and negative benefits to society, and VR headsets are no different. For example, new modes of learning delivery certainly should result in more effective education and children who enjoy the process more than traditional schooling.

Rather than just reading about a subject, a child can enjoy a fully immersive and interactive experience that can be much more enjoyable and effective than traditional methods.

On the other hand, many raise concerns about the safety and privacy of these devices. Many VR apps have already taken certain precautions to prohibit the unsafe use of these devices by children. Some of these restrictions involve requiring preteen’s parental approval to set up an account or young users only seeing apps and content rated for the pre-teenager age group. However, as previously mentioned, these limitations – while a good starting point – are not going to solve all the safety concerns that parents and guardians have with children using these apps. 

Identifying Friend from Foe

The age changes being made to these devices make children fall victim to nefarious individuals. VR represents a world that requires a nuanced understanding of potential threats because the cues that exist in the physical world can be more easily masked in VR. More specifically, the time spent in these connected worlds is a largely invisible experience, which causes serious issues when identifying friends from foes.

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Pre-teenagers developmentally are less equipped to detect a threat to their physical or emotional well-being which requires this more nuanced understanding. Similarly, pre-teens are simply less intellectually and emotionally developed than older children. This presents an even larger risk to those in that younger age group.

Strangers in cyberspace can more easily impersonate “friendly” actors in VR, and that, combined with the lack of sophistication required for pre-teens to detect this, means a much bigger threat to all children – especially those who are younger. Additionally, pre-teens can be exposed to inappropriate and violent content without teachers or guardians being fully aware. There are also privacy concerns associated with VR devices. Several apps can collect data on users, such as eye movement and facial recognition, which many parents or guardians may not be comfortable with. For all of these reasons, there needs to be a better way to protect children when they are actively using these devices. 

A Better Path Forward to Securing the Metaverse 

The answer to this growing problem will undoubtedly lie in the involvement of parental figures.

Very strong controls around identity and content that children interact with must be implemented to protect them. More specifically, to protect children, all persons in the “spaces” that they interact in must have strongly authenticated and verified identities that can assert their relationship to the child, as well as assert permitted attributes that parents must approve before being allowed to interact with children.

For example, the real identity of the person and relationship to the child must be approved. 

Furthermore, the VR equipment itself must have controls to ensure that the person presently wearing it is an authentic and verified individual to whom the account belongs to prevent impersonation. Concerning content, strong controls around the age-appropriateness and classification of it must be implemented. This can be aided by AI to automatically detect and classify malicious content. All of these restrictions combined can better safeguard both children and pre-teens from the dangers of these devices. 

AI poses immense challenges for user security, most of which we are only beginning to understand.

Looking ahead, running age-appropriate and safe virtual experiences will become one of the most important challenges facing the world. As the popularity of VR devices continues to grow, particularly among younger audiences, both companies and parental figures will need to consider implementing strong controls. Once the security and identity threat is under control, only then can we begin to truly protect the health and safety of younger audiences in the metaverse. 

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