The term “metaverse” seems to be everywhere right now, conjuring up images of a faraway future where people are spending all their waking hours clamped into virtual headsets and living in a virtual space. Think Ready Player One, in which kids escape their dystopian surroundings by playing as avatars, or The Matrix, in which unwitting people are living their lives completely plugged in.
But in some ways, the metaverse is with us now. More than 30 million people own virtual reality headsets, and kids spend hours on immersive games like Roblox and Minecraft. And that means that as the technology continues to expand and engulf kids’ lives, parents need to understand it and strategize for how they and their families will handle it.
“It’s a big mistake that parents make to think VR is far off in the future, in some sci-fi movie, and that it will take a decade for this to come,” says Grace Ahn, director of the Games and Virtual Environments Lab at the University of Georgia. “It’s in the home, and games are being developed as we speak. So we need to start talking now.”
What is this ‘metaverse’?
The term “metaverse” got a lot of attention last fall after Facebook changed its name to Meta to focus on the metaverse. Generally, says Kavya Pearlman, the founder of nonprofit XR Safety Initiative, it’s defined as a shared three-dimensional state where people can interact in virtual reality.
So instead of putting online orders in a cart, your avatar would look at product in a virtual 3D store, interact with a real salesperson (also as an avatar), and use your virtual reality device to make the purchase. Or kids from different states or countries could ride roller coasters together in a virtual theme park, or take virtual trips into space together to learn about the moon.
“It won’t entirely replace computing as we know it now,” Pearlman says. "But it will dominate our time and attention because it will be more immersive.”
Games and apps such as Roblox and Minecraft already allow some “meta” experiences as players build and interact with others in virtual worlds. “We can talk to each other, goof around, be silly, build things, and make friends,” Ahn says. “We’re not constrained by geographical boundaries.”
But in the future metaverse, we won’t use phones or computers. We’ll interact while wearing virtual reality headsets and use our bodies as part of the play—and the experience will be much more real.
“Right now a lot of the interactions on Roblox are keyboard and mouse, where you click to play a game and move,” Pearlman says. “In the future, we’ll have more immersive spaces, so you’d be able to high-five, shake hands, be more natural in how you interact with things. That opens up opportunities to share experiences in different ways.”
How will kids use it?
The uses for this technology are vast. Imagine a class going on a field trip to a faraway destination, and instead of just watching a video about an erupting volcano, kids can be in the space and interact with it.
“So an entire classroom goes on the same field trip, but every child will have a different experience because someone touched this, someone paid attention to that,” Ahn says. “There are more diverse possibilities.”
Roblox is already working on these experiences. “For example, you could experience historic events or another culture instead of just watching or reading about them–and socialize with other students from around the world,” says Laura Higgins, the company’s director of community safety and digital civility.
Another use could be creating virtual spaces for families to engage with each other in ways that mimic real life. For instance, instead of forced phone calls between kids and a caretaker or grandparent living in another state, families in the metaverse could spend time in a virtual house, playing in the backyard, watching a movie, or working on a project.
And of course, Pearlman says there will be plenty of opportunities for in-app purchases, just like there are now. But in the metaverse, users will be able to buy virtual goods that become real goods–say a pair of Nike sneakers for both the real you and your avatar.
Should parents be worried?
Of course, that can lead to issues–just ask the parents of a six-year-old in Australia who spent $8,000 while playing Roblox. But parents might have bigger concerns than just losing cash in the metaverse.
For one, researchers say that there is still much to learn about how virtual reality impacts children’s brains.
One 2008 study found that adults experiencing virtual reality were able to use their prefrontal cortex to regulate what their brains were processing. Children, however, were not—and therefore couldn’t always tell the difference between what was happening in a virtual world and what would happen in real life.
“Their prefrontal cortex is far from being fully developed at this age,” says Thomas Baumgartner, a neuroscientist at the University of Zurich and author of the study. As the worlds become even more immersive and realistic, the line between virtual and reality will be even harder for children to grasp.
Pearlman agrees, and worries that kids spending too much time in a virtual environment could even form memories based on virtual experiences. Children could form unrealistic expectations of what reality—say, their bodies or their houses—should look like, and also lose real-world social skills.
For instance, experiencing virtual worlds as avatars could amplify the cyberbullying that already happens now. And Diana Graber, author of Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology, is concerned that kids lack the judgment to simply walk away—or understand that their own behavior isn’t appropriate.
“We already know that when kids go online, they say and do things that they would never say and do in real life,” she says. “So if a child's acting through an avatar, they may feel like it's OK for their avatar to say something inappropriate or maybe do something a little bit violent because they feel so detached.”
And not fully understanding the difference between a virtual world and real life can have darker consequences as well. Graber says that playing a game in which you’re attacked with a gun or knife can feel more intense to a child than an adult. And metaverse worlds could expose children to bullies or even pedophiles in new, scary ways.
“If a child can put on VR goggles and be taught by a hologram teacher, you also have to confront the reality that someone could put up an arm and grab a child, and it would feel like sexual harassment,” Pearlman says.
How to prepare for the metaverse
If today’s immersive gaming platforms are any indication, metaverse experiences likely won’t be properly regulated, especially if—like thousands of Roblox games—they’re not intended for children. (Roblox does offer some parental controls.) For instance, ample reports show that plenty of kids are playing in the new VR experience Horizon Worlds, which is meant for users 18 and up.
Parents can prepare for more and more realistic worlds by helping kids navigate the virtual worlds that are available now. That means sitting down to play games like Minecraft or Roblox together, or even using two VR headsets (or taking turns) to see what kids are seeing.
“Talk to your children to understand what they enjoy, how to get the most from the experience, what worries them, and what to do if something goes wrong,” says Sonia Livingstone, a psychology professor at the London School of Economics who researches children, media, and the internet. “Be the person who your child wants to tell, without fear of punishment, if something upsets them online.”
Graber says parents should give kids simple digital citizenship lessons so they understand that what they do in a virtual world still has impacts. And, she says, parents should spend time with their kids in their online worlds.
“That gives you an opportunity to actually be in it with them at a time when maybe they still are willing to have you around, so you can talk to them about how to act with other people, how to respond to someone's cyberbullying, how to report something that's inappropriate,” she says. “You can do all those things together while they're still willing to have you in their environment.”
It might look like a brave new world, but in the end, the metaverse could end up being a positive experience for children.
“[These games will feature] open-ended and creative design features that stimulate their imagination and give them a sense of achievement,” Livingstone says. “This fits with what we already know about the benefits of free play in general—to support children’s development, agency, and resilience.”