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Should young teenagers be allowed in the metaverse?

A group of US and UK advocates have urged Facebook’s parent company Meta to block children from its virtual reality platform, warning that they could be exposed to inappropriate content, harassment and bullying.

The letter, signed by representatives from “36 organizations and 37 individual experts on young people’s development”, asked Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg to “immediately cancel plans to lure users aged 13 to 17 to Horizon Worlds”, Meta’s metaverse social media app, where users interact in a virtual reality. 

A leaked memo obtained by the The Wall Street Journal in February revealed Meta’s plans to attract teenagers, in order to increase user retention on the platform. The app is currently only open to adults of 18 and over.

“Considering the well-documented negative impacts of 2D social media on young people,” the letter said, “Meta must wait for more peer-reviewed research on the potential risks of the Metaverse.”

‘Routine harassment and adult content’

A March 2023 report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), Horizon Worlds Exposed, found that children were already being “routinely harassed and exposed to adult content” on the virtual reality network, despite the age restriction.

Researchers found minors present in 66 of Horizon Worlds’ 100 most populated spaces, and identified “19 incidents of abuse directed at minors by adults, including sexually explicit insults and racial, misogynistic and homophobic harassment”, the report said. Minors were also found in Mature Worlds, where Meta permits gambling, legal drugs and sexual content. 

“It’s beyond appalling that Mark Zuckerberg wants to save his failing Horizons World platform by targeting teens,” said Josh Golin, executive director of Fairplay, one of the organisations that signed the letter, calling it “an ill-formed and dangerous idea”.

“Meta is demonstrating once again that it doesn’t consider the best interest of young people,” said Katharina Kopp, deputy director for the Center for Digital Democracy.

‘Age-appropriate tools and protections’

Young people are “the generations that in many ways will be the true digital citizens of the metaverse”, said Meta’s vice-president of Horizon, Gabriel Aul, in the leaked memo.

They “have grown up seamlessly interfacing with the technology and connecting with people remotely”, the WSJ quotes him as saying. 

A Meta spokesperson told CBS News that before Horizon Worlds was made available to teens, “we will have additional protections and tools in place to help provide age-appropriate experiences for them”. 

Meta-designed Quest virtual reality headsets “are for people 13+”, the spokesperson said, “and we encourage parents and caretakers to use our parental supervision tools, including managing access to apps, to help ensure safe experiences”.

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