How Safe Are Social Virtual Reality Apps for Kids?

Kid using VR going straight to the hole
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How Safe are Social Virtual Reality Apps for Kids: Summary

With the growing popularity of virtual reality (VR), many parents are wondering whether the technology is safe for their children. VR was not designed with children in mind. As a result, experts are worried. Research shows that VR can seriously damage children’s physical and mental health.

Moreover, most VR content isn’t suited for kids. Horizon Worlds, one of the most popular VR games at the moment is developed by Facebook (Meta). It has an age restriction of 18+. But because it’s easy for children to enter the game, anyway, they face the following risks:

  • Exposure to explicit content
  • Cyberbullying, phishing, harassment
  • Sexual exploitation

Meta has been slow to respond to these threats. There are privacy complications when it comes to surveillance — and recently exposed documents indicate that Meta, in fact, wishes to engage children to drive up profits.

This is why we advise parents to talk to their children about the risks, install content filters, and sync VR headsets to other devices so you can keep an eye on the content they consume.

Fortnite, Roblox, TikTok, Snapchat… If you have a child, chances are you’re more than a little familiar with these names. At the global level, one in three children is an internet user. In the United States, as much as 95% of kids aged 3 to 18 have at-home internet access.

Much has been written about the effects of social media on kids. In the latest Facebook (now Meta) scandal, whistleblower Frances Haugan disclosed documents that reveal how Mark Zuckerberg’s company willingly exploits children to make a profit.

In fact, it turns out that Meta has a specialized team to study pre-teens and develop strategies to get this age group more engaged.

But there’s another thing that parents need to keep an eye on: kids and gaming. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 76% of American kids play video games. Some sources put this number even higher, at about 90%.

And the hottest new gaming commodity ready to snatch kids’ attention? The Oculus Quest 2 is a virtual reality headset developed by — you guessed it — Meta.

Samsung, Sony, and HTC all have VR devices. But the most popular one at the moment is the Oculus Quest 2.

To help parents along, this article looks at:

  • The effects of VR on children’s social and physical safety.
  • How kids are getting into age-restricted social virtual reality apps
  • What companies like Meta are doing to protect safety and privacy
  • What steps parents can take when it comes to kids and VR

The Metaverse: Our New Virtual World?

Virtual world iconFacebook, Meta’s flagship platform, isn’t very popular with kids. While adults are moving away from Facebook because of its reputation issues, kids are simply not interested. But with the development of Oculus, the company is attempting to gain popularity with this demographic.

In October 2021, Mark Zuckerberg announced his plan to develop a “metaverse”: a social virtual reality space that people can enter as avatars. Here, they can conduct work meetings, play video games, even attend virtual concerts.

It’s a vision of the future that’s supposed to divert people’s attention away from the wide range of ethical scandals that Meta is currently caught up in.

But already, there are concerns, not just about the Metaverse, but about VR in general.


Effects of Virtual Reality

Effects of Virtual Reality iconVirtual reality is gaining ground in many different fields, from education to medical science. In recent years, it has been shown to be extremely effective in terms of treating nightmares, PTSD, and reducing anxiety.

For artists, VR has opened up a whole new world of possibilities. And, in terms of education, adding gamification to training, workshops, and classrooms can widely expand the learning experience of VR users.

But even so, VR is a world that compromises privacy and online safety in new ways. In order to function properly, VR software gathers a vast amount of biometric data. A company like Meta can keep tabs on your physical health; from eye movement to your breathing, to symptoms of “cybersickness” such as nausea and dizziness.

Potentially more concerning, though, are the effects of VR on mental health. Experts have expressed concerns about exposure to violence and misinformation, and worry that users are vulnerable to addiction and even abuse. Even if VR is technically “not real,” the emotional and physiological effects can be just as strong.

If adults are already at risk, then how much worse will virtual reality affect kids?


Kids and Virtual Reality

Kids and Virtual Reality iconDuring the 2021 holidays, the Oculus Quest 2 app hit the #1 spot in the Apple App Store. Between December 23 and December 29, there were 1.5 million Oculus installations. Soon after, reviews of the app started coming in, many of them complaining about the presence of children in Horizon Worlds, Meta’s main VR world.

Kids have been attracted to VR since its invention, and with good reason. It can be a thrilling and immersive experience that provides them with a high level of entertainment. When it comes to Horizon Worlds, kids are likely attracted to the app because its graphics are similar to popular games like Roblox or Minecraft.

Being online can be great for kids in terms of education, entertainment, and social interaction. However, they are also more vulnerable to cyberbullying, exploitation, and phishing. Virtual reality devices are not manufactured for kids younger than 13 years old, and the Horizon Worlds app itself is 18+.

But clearly, age restrictions don’t keep kids away from virtual reality. They are getting their hands on VR devices and finding their way in.

Horizon Worlds

All a child has to do to get into Horizon Worlds is to put on a headset that’s configurated by someone over the age of 18. Once an Oculus device is tied to an adult’s Facebook account, kids can access all the same apps.

Because Horizon Worlds is a multiplayer game that’s open to pretty much anyone, there is a serious concern about sexual exploitation. In 2020, a record number of 37,872 reports on “online enticement” — adults trying to sexually groom or abuse children online — were reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

In unmoderated social virtual reality environments, opportunities for abuse are even more abundant. Now, let’s have a closer look at these and other risks.


Virtual Reality Risks for Kids

Virtual reality was not developed with kids in mind; VR headset manufacturers model devices on adults. While most guidelines include some safety warnings for potential risks, many kids are using VR.

As a result, experts worry about children’s physical and mental health, especially with VR quickly growing in popularity. Let’s discuss the biggest risks below.

Physical risks

For ethical reasons, it’s difficult to properly test the long-term effects of VR on children. There are all sorts of limitations in place to make sure minors can be safely subjected to an experiment. That’s why there’s no clear consensus yet on the way VR affects child development.

Infographic showing Virtual Reality physical risks for kids.

Even so, the following risks have been identified:

  • Visual damage: Using VR can affect the growth of the eye, something that’s especially relevant for children. Headsets are designed for adults. For VR to work well, the headset needs to be adjusted to match the distance between a person’s eyes (IPD). For kids, VR doesn’t offer the right IPD, which can cause serious discomfort.
  • Motion sickness: There are many symptoms associated with motion sickness: eye strain, nausea, and headaches. Depth perception, for example, is seriously affected by VR; you’re projecting your eyes on something that seems far away, but is only an inch or so away. For kids, long exposure to VR can damage their physical development in all sorts of ways.
  • Irreparable hearing damage: The longer a child listens to increasingly loud audio, the more it starts to sound normal. Long-term damage can be the result.
  • Difficulty differentiating between VR and reality: According to research by Standford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, VR gets stored in the brain’s memory center the same way real-world experiences do. For children, especially young kids, it’s even more challenging to differentiate between what’s real and not.

We might expect children to inform parents about their physical discomfort, but for all sorts of reasons, they might not. The younger a child is, the more they’ll struggle to communicate their needs clearly.

Mental risks

Besides physical effects, experts are worried about the mental strain that VR can put on kids. This has to do with the following reasons:

Infographic showing Virtual Reality mental risks for kids.

  • A lot of VR content is unsuited for kids. Many VR games or experiences are either 13+ or 18+. They can contain graphic content that, because of the heightened level of immersion, can have a lasting impact. Exposing children to certain language or visuals can cause fear, anxiety, or extreme stress.
  • VR games are designed to be addictive. Though VR guidelines recommend taking regular breaks (10-15 minutes after every half hour played), without a timer, it’s easy to skip these breaks and play for hours. Addiction to video games has been associated with depression and anxiety but also increased aggression and sleep deprivation.
  • According to a study by Jakki Bailey, of the University of Texas, children use VR in very social ways. This can make them victims of anything from cyberbullying to phishing. In the study, two groups of kids were given little tasks to do by a cartoon character — one in 2D, one in VR. The children in the VR test group were much quicker to obey the character. In a social, multiplayer environment like Horizon Worlds, this can be a great risk.

Sexual Exploitation in Social VR Apps

Sexual exploitation in VR iconMany VR spaces are self-moderated. Horizon Worlds lacks any form of parental control. Instead, users are encouraged to control their own experiences.

If you feel harassed, you can mute, block, or report users. A specific feature is the “safety zone,” which you can activate by raising your wrist and tapping a button with your other hand. After complaints of insufficiency, Meta implemented the “personal boundary,” which keeps the avatars in Horizon Worlds four feet apart at all times.

However, when it comes to kids, these types of safety measures are not enough. Experts agree that mixing children with adult strangers in any online space, opens up the way for online abuse, sexual exploitation, blackmail, and stalking.

Research by the Seattle Times further confirms that video games and online chatrooms are a “hunting grounds” for predators. Especially when an environment is largely self-regulated and doesn’t have solid systems for reporting, those looking to groom children will take advantage.

Another danger is, that even if violation within a game like Horizon Worlds stays at a minimum, kids can be persuaded to leave the VR world and get into contact with predators on other platforms such as Snapchat, which is even more suited for abuse.


What Responsibilities Do Tech Companies Have?

Who should be responsible for keeping kids safe online? It might be easy to point at parents, but VR doesn’t exactly make it any easy for them. It’s a relatively new type of technology, one that not all parents are familiar with.

Moreover, games like Horizon Worlds don’t have any parental controls. So, what responsibilities should tech companies shoulder?

Instagram

Other platforms are also running into similar issues. Instagram is often used for exploitative purposes. In 2019, The Atlantic reported that teenagers on Instagram had stumbled on a network of sexual predators who were sharing Dropbox links of child pornography amongst each other.

In response, teens started flooding the same hashtags with memes and other content, to disrupt the network. While it’s an admirable reaction, kids shouldn’t have to fend for themselves like this.

Games

Games like Minecraft and Roblox have had to deal with similar issues. They offer voice chat as well as an on-screen text features that can easily expose children to strangers. However, after criticism, users (parents, in most cases) were able to disable voice that, which filtered out a lot of unwanted content. This is not the case for Horizon Worlds.

But what is Meta doing to keep kids safe?

Meta’s responsibility

When Frances Haugan exposed company documents, Facebook rejected the accusation that they choose profit over people. They claim they spend $5 billion per year to keep its platforms safe.

However, when it comes to regulating or moderating VR, there are challenges. AI can be used to analyze and process text chat, but it’s much more difficult to respond effectively to people behaving as they would in real life.

It is challenging, both manually and computationally, to scan an avatar’s body language, real-time conversations, and one-on-one interaction between people.

In Horizon Worlds, moderators are sparse. Avatars are around to answer questions if needed, but they don’t enforce age restrictions or respond proactively to everything that happens.

Instead, the app continually records each user’s experience and stores the last few minutes for review.

However, this creates even more concerns, namely when it comes to privacy.

Privacy issues

In the United States, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1998 was designed to keep companies from easily obtaining personal data belonging to children under the age of 13. It details what responsibilities a company has when it comes to privacy.

COPPA, however, has been criticized for allowing companies to bypass obtaining parental consent. Moreover, as we’ve seen with Horizon Worlds, the minimum age of 18 isn’t actually enforced; children’s data, including that of children younger than 13 years old is being collected.

It creates a tricky dilemma for operators: in order to keep kids safe online, they’ll have to monitor — that is, censor — what is happening on their platforms. Yet, this type of surveillance creates bulk data on minors, which seriously affects their privacy.

But here’s the crux: a platform like Horizon Worlds is not meant for minors, which is why it’s important for Meta to act. Not by increasing surveillance — though having proper safety controls on any VR app can’t hurt — but by making it more difficult for children to get into the game in the first place.


What Can Parents Do?

Infographic showing what can parents do to help kids navigate the world of virtual reality

There are a couple of things parents can do to help their kids navigate the world of virtual reality. We would like to offer six useful tips:

  1. Be aware of the health risks. If you have a VR device at home, your children will most likely want to use it. Keep in mind that VR can harm their physical and mental health. If you have children under 13, it’s best they aren’t exposed to VR at all. If your kids do end up using the device, the tips below will help make their experience safer.
  2. Keep the conversation open. By far, one of the best ways to keep your child protected online is by talking to them and staying connected to their experience. Discuss the risks of VR with your children. Talk about cybercrime, phishing, and exploitation. Teach them how to respond when something happens that they don’t like.
  3. Set a time limit. To mitigate the negative effects of VR, keep an eye on the time your children spend using the device and take regular breaks. Prolonged exposure can have negative consequences.
  4. Virtual reality uses a WiFi network. You can filter your network to make sure that certain content will be blocked.
  5. When parental controls are lacking, you can cast the VR device to a different device. For the Oculus Quest 2, for example, it’s possible to watch along with what is happening on your phone. This way, you can see what your child is doing. Make sure you discuss this with them upfront and show them that you want to be involved in a positive way — playing together — rather than monitor every second. Allow them some independence; being too controlling can backfire.
  6. You can also sync the VR device to your own phone to see downloaded videos or pictures; this is possible with the Oculus Quest 2.

The XR Safety Initiative is a non-profit trying to create a safety standard in immersive industries. On their website, you can find guides for parents and guides for children. Some tips we outlined in our article about keeping kids safe on social media can also be useful for the VR environment.


Final Thoughts

Children are very eager to play virtual reality games. Most VR content is either 13+ or 18+, but it’s very easy for kids to get past these age restrictions. This can negatively affect their physical and mental health.

The most popular VR device at the moment is the Oculus Quest 2, which gives access to Meta’s Horizon Worlds. This is a largely unmoderated space, that both children and those looking to harm children flock to.

In order to prevent harm, Meta must step up by creating privacy-sensitive safety controls and truly enforcing the 18+ age restriction. Parents can also do the following things to keep their children safer:

  • Know the risks of VR and discuss these with your children
  • Set time limits
  • Filter your network to block objectionable content
  • Cast or sync the VR headsets to another device for adult supervision

If you want to read more about kids’ safety online, you can read what the experts have to say here. Our article on gaming addiction in kids also contains some useful tips for managing your child’s online habits.

How Safe are Social Virtual Reality Apps for Kids? — Frequently Asked Questions

Do you want to know more about how virtual reality affects kids? Check out our frequently asked questions below.

Virtual reality is not completely safe for kids. Headsets can cause discomfort and damage. While it’s difficult to pinpoint the long-term consequences, these side-effects occur often when kids play VR games:

  • Visual strain and hearing damage
  • Dizziness, disorientation
  • Anxiety, stress, addiction, sleep deprivation

Because VR is immersive, the experiences register as real on a neurological level. This is why VR is often age-restricted to 13+ or 18+. Read our full article for tips on how to keep your kids safe in VR.

VR headsets are not manufactured for the size of a child’s head. The younger a child is, the more serious the effects of VR can be. This is why most devices and games have a 13+ age restriction.

Some suspect the restriction also has to do with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). COPPA doesn’t allow companies to obtain personal data of children under 13. By putting a 13+ restriction on a game, a company doesn’t have to obtain parental consent for teens, despite the fact that it might not be safe.

Children that enter VR worlds, can face harassment, cyberbullying, and even abuse.

Experts fear that any game or world that attracts a lot of kids, also peaks the interest of predators. Roblox, Minecraft, and Fortnite run into similar issues. Horizon Worlds, which is 18+ but frequented by children, is feared to be a ‘hunting ground’ for groomers and abusers.

Because VR is difficult to moderate, it’s extra important to keep children out of spaces unsuited for them.

Be aware of the risks and discuss these with your children. VR might be thrilling, but it’s not without harm. You can talk to your children about cyberbullying, sexual exploitation, and how to interact with strangers online.

If you want to get into the VR game yourself, you can often sync your device to the headset and watch along. Make sure this is a positive experience for your children. If you’re too controlling, it might backfire.

The Oculus Quest 2 does not have parental controls. In Horizon Worlds, all a child has to do to enter is use a headset that was configured by someone older than 18.

Within the app, there are some safety measures such as a “safety zone” and a “personal boundary.” Meta also records and stores the last minutes of a user’s experience. While this is meant to improve safety, it creates privacy issues for minors.

You can sync the Oculus headset to a different device and watch along.

International Censorship & Security Journalist
Lauren Mak is an internal censorship and security-focused journalist with a keen eye for how technology affects society. With a background in International Relations and North American Studies, Lauren brings a unique perspective to the VPNOverview team. Lauren has a passion for helping others understand the importance of privacy, freedom, and internet safety and brings that passion to VPNOverview.