Virtual reality headsets that immerse children in 360-degree worlds where they swim with sharks, whales and mermaids. Technology that transports them to the sights, sounds and sensations of ancient Rome. Multi-player gaming where they touch and feel their opponents.
This isn’t future tech, it’s today’s tech – and it’s all waiting at a retail store near you this holiday season.
These immersive technologies allow us to interact with digital content in ways that look, sound, and feel almost real. Researchers claim these virtual or hyper-realistic experiences will soon be almost indistinguishable from real life. Are we ready? More importantly, are our children ready?
While the cost of haptic gloves and suits remain beyond most consumers, their promise of a full-body sensory experience adds another dimension to the virtual experience. And the emergence of a spatial web, or metaverse – enabled by immersive technologies – has the potential to introduce a new paradigm to our digital lives.
This emerging tech has great potential, such as more opportunities for children in rural or remote areas to access education, or for neurodiverse young people to socialise in more accessible ways.
While it’s exciting to contemplate the promise of immersive technologies, it’s important to recognise existing and emerging harms. eSafety’s research shows that about 1 in 5 young people who have engaged in the metaverse said they experienced something that made them feel unsafe.
By providing hyper-realistic experiences, immersive technologies could increase the impact of negative interactions and lead to a rise in online assaults and other forms of abuse.
Research also suggests that the illusion of VR is far more effective on young children, which is likely to heighten the impact of cyberbullying and other harms in immersive environments.i
This impact extends to any young person still developing the critical reasoning skills to distinguish real life events from those taking place in virtual environments. For example, where VR games incorporate graphic themes, this is likely to evoke a much stronger emotional response in children, including potentially longer lasting feelings of fear, anxiety and trauma.
In addition, children are uniquely at risk in virtual multi-person environments, especially where adults and children co-mingle. Children may interact with fellow users represented only by avatars, exposing them to the risk of being groomed by online predators or manipulated into producing child sexual exploitation material.
In a metaverse, children might also chat or engage with an avatar who appears to be a young peer but in reality is not. The technology can make it more difficult for children and young people to discern a malicious online actor from a real friend.
There will likely be new harms. For example, it will be important to understand what kind of data, including biometrics, that immersive technologies and devices are extracting and using because this has the potential to expand our digital footprint – the record of all our interactions and activity online.
Our eSafety Gift Guide offers detailed guidance on what to consider when giving children and young people technologies that take them into immersive worlds. This includes whether a device is age appropriate and what parental controls are available.
New research we conducted on user safety in the metaverse shows nearly 80% of young people surveyed believe tech and gaming companies should be responsible for keeping users safe. We agree.
eSafety’s Safety by Design initiative encourages technology companies to anticipate, detect and eliminate online risks to make our digital environments safer and more inclusive, especially for those most at risk.
Safety by Design also advocates a set of principles – service provider responsibility, user empowerment and autonomy, transparency and accountability – that make user safety a fundamental design consideration for the online world. These principles apply equally to immersive technologies and we believe that we have a rare opportunity to learn the lessons from today to more positively shape the metaverse of tomorrow.
At eSafety, we have worked to understand what children and young people want in terms of online safety and how they expect the technology industry to help them navigate online environments freely and safely. This is captured in our Youth Vision Statement.
It is essential that these wants, needs and expectations are reflected in our ever-evolving technology landscape.
Technology is advancing rapidly, and we must future-proof any measures we put in place today against changes on the horizon.
We are already witnessing the impact of the algorithms that mediate almost all facets of our daily lives. And we are already seeing how immersive technologies may reshape the online ecosystem.
Ultimately, it is vital to build in safety as a forethought, rather than an afterthought. This is the most effective way to maximise the potential benefits and mitigate the potential harms of new and immersive technologies.
i Schmitz, Anastasia, Richard Joiner, and Paul Golds. Is seeing believing? The effects of virtual reality on young children’s understanding of possibility and impossibility, Journal of Children and Media 14.2 (2020): 158-172; Kenwright, Ben. Virtual reality: Ethical challenges and dangers, IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, 14 Jan 2019.