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Virtual reality (VR) software has become increasingly popular among young tech consumers. Users of the latest VR headset technology love to explore vast digital worlds and interact with other users. While there are many creative and exciting possibilities for this technology, intensive oversight is needed to ensure the safety of our kids in this brave new world of virtual reality. Unfortunately, recent reports have come forth detailing disturbing issues of sexual impropriety and exploitation of minors across virtual reality domains. It is important for parents to be aware of the possible risks of VR so that kids can be better protected while exploring its fun and creative applications. It’s also important for tweens and teens to be aware. That is why we created the Social Media Readiness Course. This course was designed to prepare kids and teens for the inherent risks of social media in order to prevent digital injuries and promote responsibility

What is the Metaverse?

The term metaverse appears to be one of those recent buzzwords that seemingly everyone has heard of yet understands very little about. People wonder if it’s a game, a new type of internet, or a singular virtual reality space inhabited by everyone who has a VR headset. As it exists right now, the metaverse refers to apps that use virtual reality technology. For example, someone can download a Jurassic-themed VR app that allows them to use their VR headsets to engage in a virtual space inhabited by dinosaurs. Or someone could download a different VR app that allows the user to virtually explore a museum. Although they are completely separate from one another, the virtual spaces provided by the two different apps collectively comprise the metaverse.

Kids may access adult-themed virtual domains.

The VR industry profits billions of dollars per year which has resulted in an enormous amount of VR apps being developed for consumer use. The expansion rate for app development is too fast for there to be comprehensive oversight of all the apps that children have access to download. This means that it is relatively easy for kids to download a VR app that may look innocent but end up being completely inappropriate for them. Additionally, some apps that should have stringent user-age restrictions simply don’t, allowing kids access to virtual strip clubs and other adult-themed spaces.

Children and Adults Mix

A researcher posing as a 13-year-old girl was given access to a virtual strip club while using a VR app that had a minimum user age agreement of 13. The researcher downloaded an app called VRChat which is characterized as an online virtual platform which users can navigate through as 3-D avatars. The app can be downloaded from an app store on Facebook’s Meta Quest VR headset, which only requires a Facebook account instead of an age verification. Inside of the app there are virtual rooms where users can meet and interact with one another. Some of these rooms are quite innocent such as popular fast-food restaurants whereas others are highly sexually explicit.

Upon entering the virtual strip club, the researcher was exposed to sex toys, condoms, and approached by adult male avatars who asked her to engage in erotic role play. The adult content is not restricted to a single room, rather it spans across multiple virtual rooms providing more points of access and exposure for young users. While pink flashing neon lights and booming music might signal sexual connotations to adults in the real world, to kids on a VR headset this might just look like an enticing feature of a fun video game.

Children using this app and others like it have reported being groomed by other users with adult avatars and forced to engage in virtual sex. The avatars on this app have the ability to get completely nude and simulate sex acts which may require the user wearing the headset to physically act out the motions themselves. The completely immersive nature of VR can make these experiences as traumatic and harmful as they would be in real life.

Parents Can Help

Parents can’t rely on tech companies and app developers to keep their children safe in a virtual reality space, especially with billions of dollars on the table. However, this doesn’t mean that kids should not be allowed to engage with this technology that also offers fun, creative, and educational experiences. Keep in mind that technology is like any other tool. The tool may be safe as long as it is being handled properly and wisely.

To optimize a safe and positive VR experience:

  • Research apps before allowing your kids to download them.
  • Take time to explore the virtual space yourself to sample what your kids will be seeing.
  • Periodically monitor the list of apps your kids have downloaded to ensure that no unapproved apps are being used.
  • Hold your children accountable to understand and guard against potential online risks that can lead to digital injury.
    • Check out our GKIS Social Media Readiness Course. Our course is a valuable tool that teaches tweens and teens about the inherent risks of social media and ways to be prepared when encountering them. We also cover critical psychological wellness tools to optimize mental health and overall satisfaction.
  • Verbally check in with your kids about what their experiences in the metaverse are like.
    • If you have school-age kids, you’ll want to check out Dr. B’s GKIS Connected Family Course which offers essential tips for fostering this kind of open communication.
  • Finally, remember to be kind, create an environment that allows for open dialogue between you and your kids, and rest assured that you have provided your family with the tools to facilitate safe and healthy internet practices. For ideas on what to talk about and to stay up to date on relevant internet/gaming topics, read our weekly free articles on the GKIS Blog by signing up for our free Connected Family Agreement.

Thanks to CSUCI intern, Mackenzie Morrow for researching some of the risks of virtual reality spaces for kids and co-authoring this article.

I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.

Onward to More Awesome Parenting,

Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty

Photo Credits

Photo by Julia M Cameron (https://www.pexels.com/photo/photo-of-boy-using-vr-headset-4145251/)

Photo by Setyaki Irham (https://unsplash.com/photos/QGDsM8qwkEA)

Photo by Julia M Cameron (https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-father-talking-to-his-son-8841296/)

Picture of Mackenzie Morrow
Mackenzie Morrow