What Parents Need to Know About the Metaverse

More and more people are venturing into the Metaverse everyday–including kids. Here’s what parents need to know about what it is, how it works, and how to keep kids safe as they explore the Metaverse.

A Parents Guide to the Metaverse
Photo: Getty | hakule

The metaverse has been in the news recently after Facebook changed its parent company name to Meta and announced a commitment to "help bring the metaverse to life." Big players like Google and Microsoft are exploring their own metaverse options as well. This new emphasis on metaverse technology creates new opportunities and concerns for parents and kids. What is the metaverse, and what can you do to protect your child while exploring it?

What Is the Metaverse?

The term "metaverse" comes from the Neil Stephenson science fiction novel Snow Crash, and just like science fiction, it doesn't describe present reality. The metaverse is currently more of a concept for a virtual, interconnected 3D platform or series of platforms. Your virtual avatar could perhaps travel through 3D spaces, interact socially with other avatars, attend meetings, take classes, make purchases, and generate or modify content. In many ways, this is the way people used to dream the internet would look. The idea is still evolving, so what we call a metaverse now will likely not resemble what we see in a few years.

"The metaverse has the potential to be really immersive, which makes the user experience engaging and fun," says Julianna Miner, author of Raising a Screen Smart Kid: Embrace the Good and Avoid the Bad in the Digital Age. "But the more stimulating a technology is, the harder it is for both kids and adults to disconnect from it, and to tolerate less stimulating activities–like homework or chores–that are required of us in the real world."

As with any technology, most experts agree that balance is key, and parents should monitor and regulate their kids' usage and interaction.

Here's what parents need to know about the metaverse.

How Do You Get to the Metaverse?

Because there's no singular metaverse, there are multiple ways to log into one. You don't necessarily need anything beyond a phone or a laptop. With a computer, kids can log into metaverses such as the more family-friendly platforms of Roblox and Minecraft. Kids can modify the platform to create games or objects and, most importantly, socialize with other people worldwide who share the same interests. You can often exchange real and virtual currencies (like dollars for Robux). For teens, finding a COVID-free social hangout during a pandemic may be essential to their mental wellbeing.

Most metaverse platforms allow you to log in and either visit or purchase games. You can generally navigate to different games using a central navigation console, much like you can navigate to apps on your phone or games on an Xbox or PlayStation console.

If you want to explore metaverses that use virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR), you may need a headset. Fortunately, the prices have gone down recently. For standalone gameplay, you can buy a specialized VR headset, such as the $499 HTC Vive or the $299 Meta Quest 2. If you already have a gaming console, the Sony PlayStation and Xbox also offer VR headset accessories. You can also use your Android phone as a VR headset using cheaper accessories such as the Google Cardboard (starting at around $10). When it comes to AR, you can use a headset or a phone or tablet. Pokémon Go is an excellent example of an AR game where you visit real-world locations but catch virtual Pokémon.

Kids and the Metaverse

Not every metaverse is right for every age, and not every app within every metaverse is appropriate for children. Both Minecraft and Roblox were designed to accommodate children. Roblox offers specific safety features for children under the age of 13, such as chat filters or the ability to turn off chat. The VIVE also provides child safety protections for younger children through a feature they call Guardian. Google Cardboard doesn't set an age limit, but suggests that kids should only use it with close parental supervision. The Quest 2, on the other hand, is strictly marketed to ages 13 and up. You could lie and create an account for a younger child or share your headset, but that opens up the possibility your child may find violent games, instant message with strangers, or make unauthorized purchases from your account.

VR headsets for very young children create concerns beyond viewing inappropriate content or social contacts. Even as an adult, using a VR headset can cause eye fatigue or nausea, and kids may not find headsets fit them as well. Kids may also not be as cautious as adults about moving around and running into walls or other real-world objects while exploring virtual space. There's also some concern that younger children could form false memories from virtual environments, rather than recognizing what they remembered was from a simulation.

The Benefits of the Metaverse

There are multiple known and potential benefits to a metaverse, including entertainment, socializing, exercise, and even medical use.

Medical research has evaluated treatment benefits for VR and AR games for years. Some promising treatments for anxiety and phobias in adults and adolescents use virtual or augmented environments. One example currently under study is code-named VERA, which uses biofeedback and VR to help adolescents and teens learn to regulate their emotions. There's also interest in using VR headsets for autism therapy and research into using VR devices to distract children undergoing specific medical procedures.

Another field to watch is education and training. There's some evidence that VR learning can help with learning retention. Pilots, drivers, the military, and other professionals have long used simulations for training. While creating virtual Magic Schoolbus field trips is possible, allowing kids to be self-directed in exploring their interests is even more powerful. Creating, programming, and remixing content is a solid start to learning STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) skills. As Tami Bhaumik, vice president of civility and partnerships at Roblox, puts it, "In the future, dabbling in creation on the platform could easily be one of the top ways for people to get into STEM, learn coding and digital design skills."

But the most crucial benefit for teens and adolescents may be the social aspect. Teens and young adults have a greater need for socialization with their peers than adults over age 24.

"A lot of kids and teens don't find connection in real life—they have come to Roblox and found community and acceptance," says Bhaumik. "Kids are bullied in real life and find kind people on Roblox. We've heard from many families how over the past few years Roblox has become 'a lifeline,' helping kids and teens stay in touch with their friends and extended family."

The Costs of the Metaverse

As is typical with video games, many metaverse platforms and games include in-app purchases, so you will need to take advantage of parental safety controls against accidental purchases if you cannot trust your child not to spend real money on virtual items without permission.

Some talk of the metaverse has gone beyond traditional money and included cryptocurrency, blockchain, virtual islands with virtual landgrabs, and selling virtual game items called NFTs or non-fungible tokens. Caution your kids and teens to tread carefully when it comes to money (in all its forms) and the metaverse. Watch The Line Goes UP to see more information about NFTs and the metaverse.

Parental Controls and Safety in the Metaverse

Parental control and safety measures are inconsistent since the metaverses are still a work in progress. For example, Roblox has a robust set of parental controls, while the Second Life metaverse is strictly adult-only (for a good reason).

One of the first concerns for VR games is physical safety when using a headset that goes over your eyes. Google Cardboard is best enjoyed from one spot to avoid falls and collisions. The Quest Guardian (not to be confused with VIVE's Guardian) has players draw a virtual circle around their play area using the external-facing cameras on the headset. The VIVE has a similar method to set up a room-scale play area. It's designed to keep you from literally hitting a wall or tripping over the coffee table.

People of all ages, but especially kids, may experience VR motion sickness. If this is a persistent problem, you may wish to opt out of VR headsets entirely and use your phone or computer to experience any metaverse content until the technology improves. There are still plenty of incredible metaverse experiences available from a laptop.

Mental Health and the Metaverse

Beyond financial costs, we already know that there are risks to teen mental health for girls using Instagram. We do not know if those risks will improve or worsen in a 3D metaverse where you can change your appearance and socialize in new ways—or even potentially have some form of virtual sex. That does not mean these concerns should keep your kids out of the metaverse completely. The benefits of connection may outweigh the risks of a harmful negative self-image.

The metaverse could even create new solutions for mental wellness. Online therapy has become a pandemic staple through services like BetterHelp, Talkspace, and Cerebral. Other apps like Headspace, Shine, and Calm offer meditation and wellness solutions. "[With] Calm, we are meeting people where they are. Phones are part of our everyday society," says Chris Mosunic, Ph.D, the chief clinical officer at Calm. "During the pandemic, we listened to our members and heard that kids were struggling, dealing with anxiety at an alarming rate. So we invested in Calm Kids, creating meditations, sleep stories, and lullabies to support the whole family. You can't allow isolation to happen. Pull the whole family together and make mindfulness a shared activity."

Metaverse socialization is no different from other social media apps regarding safety risks. The Quest 2 connects to Facebook and encourages instant messaging and "Oculus parties" or group chats. So take the same precautions you would with letting your kid use Facebook. Take reasonable precautions and try to model good behavior. For parents of children under 13, consider skipping the Quest and opting for more kid-friendly metaverses.

"It's incredibly important for parents to teach their kids and teens the necessary skills to navigate their metaverse interactions in a safe and civil way—the same way they teach them about navigating the physical world," says Roblox VP Bhaumik. "Kids and teens are growing up and building connections in the digital world too, so it's important for parents to have conversations with them about their online lives regularly, get more involved, try and spend more time with them online doing things they love to do. Open up communication with your child. 'How's your day? What do you feel when you're on Roblox or social media?'"

TAMI Bhaumik, VP Of CIVILITY and Partnerships at Roblox

"It's incredibly important for parents to teach their kids and teens the necessary skills to navigate their metaverse interactions in a safe and civil way—the same way they teach them about navigating the physical world."

— TAMI Bhaumik, VP Of CIVILITY and Partnerships at Roblox

Miner also cautions that time spent on social media platforms should not displace time spent in person during times when it is safe to do so. "Because the metaverse is designed to be a multiplayer environment, there's a real possibility that we'll use our engagement and connection in that virtual world as a substitute for actual, in-person connection," she says. "Certainly we see that now with social media, how it can create both feelings of connection and of profound loneliness. Spending time with people in real life yields much greater mental health benefits. So there is a true opportunity cost in terms of our mental health when we substitute virtual versus real social time."

As far as warning signs, Michael P. Milham, M.D., Ph.D., vice president of research at the Child Mind Institute and a member of the Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children's Mental Health advises, "Parents should be on the lookout for signs including loss of sleep and interest in relationships or activities, neglecting schoolwork, going online to avoid unpleasant feelings, and acting out when internet time is limited."

Taking Breaks and Opting Out

For young children, there may be more concerns about spending long periods playing VR games or wearing VR headsets. For older kids, the rechargeable batteries often mandate periodic breaks in play, probably for the better.

Just as you set family screen time rules, you can set rules for VR screen time, including limiting the amount of time anyone plays per day. Meta is rolling out parental control features that allow you to monitor how much time your kid is spending in the metaverse, but tools and guidelines may differ from platform to platform, so it's up to parents to be diligent about setting guidelines.

"Overall, parents should have an understanding and comfort in setting guardrails for their child's online consumption," says Dr. Milham advised. "To make that a healthy process, we recommend that after looking for warning signs and gathering data on your family's behaviors, you work together on a solution."

The Bottom Line

No matter how your kid decides to explore the metaverse, it's always essential to make sure you communicate with your kids and keep tabs on their mental wellbeing. Don't wait for your kids to ask for help.

"It is important to note that there are not all negatives when it comes to technology," says Joan Steinberg, president of the Morgan Stanley Foundation and CEO of the Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children's Mental Health's advisory board. "Teens can build and foster connections that might not have been otherwise available as well as more easily stay in touch with friends and family. However, if you're noticing anything out of the norm in terms of their time spent on their phones or online, or dramatic shifts in their behaviors – that's when intervention is necessary."

There are dangers to any social media, and the metaverse is no different. Still, for our adolescents and teens, the social connection it provides during the pandemic may be the best thing we could give them.

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