The metaverse: Brave new world - or an upgrade for predators?

Mixing kids and adult strangers in a self-moderated online environment ... What could possibly go wrong?

“Hello? Where are you?” 

“I can’t find you. Can you give me a hint?”

The plaintive voice calling from a virtual palace corridor definitely sounded like a child. But how could that be? In the new virtual reality app Horizon Worlds, kids aren’t allowed. 

Kids are everywhere 

But when The Washington Post trialled Meta’s much-heralded metaverse, it encountered children instantly - some as young as nine.

Other early reviewers have detailed multiple encounters with children, “some of them foulmouthed and rude, gleefully ruining the experience for the grown-ups,” the Post has reported.

With no verification procedures in place, Meta's age restrictions are being called out as  a “paper tiger.” Once Horizon Worlds is linked to a Facebook account, anyone who puts it on can access all the same apps and experiences.

Why is that dangerous? Because in Horizon Worlds, as many as 20 avatars can interact in a given space - but this and other virtual reality platforms provide an ideal environment for one-on-one conversations, including those between kids and potential predators, warn experts.

So ... what's the metaverse exactly?

So what does it all mean? The word “metaverse” is suddenly everywhere … even if no one seems quite able to pin it down with a simple definition. Facebook even changed its corporate name to “Meta” in a public and very deliberate homage to the Next Big Thing in tech. 

The term metaverse was coined 30 years ago by novelist Neal Stephenson to describe a futuristic universe where avatars inhabit a virtual world similar to our physical one.

Meta chief Mark Zuckerberg describes the metaverse “an embodied Internet where you’re in an experience, not just looking at it.” 

At its most basic, a metaverse is a virtual place (a concept that is in itself is confusing to many …) where people wearing virtual reality headsets can meet and interact via avatars. 

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But what’s an avatar, you ask? Simply put, it’s a character or image - human or otherwise - that’s been created to represent an individual.

Users enter a metaverse through a particular platform or app. If your kids are on Roblox, for example, they are already roaming around a primitive metaverse, interacting with other users’ avatars.

A true metaverse adds virtual reality to the experience, in the form of a head-worn apparatus that completely covers the eyes to deliver an immersive 3D experience in a simulated environment.  

Predators lurking

Whatever is new online inevitably attracts children. And where kids go, sexual predators “are often among the first to arrive,” notes Sarah Gardner of Thorn, a tech nonprofit dedicated to protecting kids from online 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.”

But it’s not only kids who are at risk.

According to technologyreview.com, grown women are also being harassed on Horizon Worlds, with so-called “virtual groping” a reported hazard.

Contradictory messages

A company spokesman pointed to safety features which, when activated, allow users to exist in a bubble in which “no one can touch them, talk to them, or interact in any way.” 

And if that seems to contradict the whole point of entering the metaverse in the first place … welcome to the upside-down world of virtual reality.

Open conversations plus Family Zone's acclaimed parental controls can ensure your child's online life stays healthy and balanced.

Create a home where your digital kids thrive, and start your free trial today.

 

 

 

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Topics: Cyber Bullying, Parental Controls, Screen time, Mobile Apps, Excessive Device Usage, online safety, esafety, online predators, metaverse

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