GENERATION VR Meet the children who will pass 10

The online safety bill presents a major gap in the protection of real-time activity in virtual reality and the metaverse, with huge implications for online safety

Over 90% of parents feel uncomfortable letting their children explore the metaverse via virtual reality without supervision

New research from industry experts at the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) predicts that the next generation will spend approximately 10 years in VR in their lifetime – about 2h45 per day[i].

The figure supports the EIT’s groundbreaking new report ‘Safeguarding the Metaverse’ – which explores both the opportunities and potential harms of the new digital realm – launched today to coincide with the final reading in parliament of the new bill on UK government online security.

The EIT calls on politicians and policy makers to ensure that comprehensive measures regulating activities taking place in virtual reality and the metaverse are included in the final bill – a major shortcoming which has implications for online safety , such as harassment and abuse.

Although “metaverse” is a relatively new term, it’s clear that a new virtual reality is on the horizon. Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has stated his goal of reaching one billion users by 2030, and other Silicon Valley giants like Google and Microsoft are also continuing to invest and innovate in this space. .

However, new research from the IET reveals nearly two-thirds (62%) of parents children from 5 to 10 years old don’t currently understand metaverseemphasizing the need to safeguard this new space so that our young people can safely enjoy the myriad of experiences and educational benefits it could offer them.

Yet despite the lack of understanding and – above all – regulation, Britons are already beginning to explore this new online world. In 2021, the percentage of UK adults who have experienced virtual reality has more than doubled, from 10% in January 2021 to 22% in December 2021 (research by Limina Immersive, as noted in the report).

Moreover, according to the IET study, more than a fifth of 5-10 year olds (21%) already have their own VR headset or have requested a similar technical gift for their birthday or Christmas. 15% of them have already tried VR, and 6% use it regularly.

But, despite children’s first steps into this new form of media, there is apprehension on the part of parents as well as a lack of knowledge. Only 1 in 10 parents (10%) feel comfortable letting their child explore the metaverse via VR without supervision. Among parents whose children are already interacting with virtual reality, more than a quarter (26%) admitted they didn’t know what their child had access to in this new virtual world, highlighting the need for robust backup.

And, worryingly, the IET report suggests that these parents’ fears are not misplaced; even existing VR users say this virtual world currently looks like a “dangerous wild west”[1]; a situation that urgently needs to be remedied. So how can we make the metaverse a safe space for the next generation? By perpetuating our legislation to protect the freedoms, rights and privacy of all its users.

Catherine Allen, co-author of the new IET report, member of the IET’s digital policy panel and CEO of virtual reality consultancy Limina Immersive, says:

“Through our research, we estimate that the next generation will spend approximately ten years of their life in virtual reality. This figure alone illustrates the impact this technology will have on the lives of children today.

“Immersive technologies have unlimited potential and endless opportunities, but it also comes with risks and threats. It is essential that the security, privacy and rights of end users are protected.

“Today the UK has a golden opportunity to use its democratic processes to shape the future of the next great form of media: immersive technologies and the metaverse. Not only will this help protect adults and children from future harm in years to come, but it will also bring wider societal rewards. People need to feel safe in digital spaces in order to truly harness the potential.”

Supporting the IET’s call on the government and campaigning for the introduction of new metaverse legislation is Child Safety Advocate and IET Honorary Member, Carol Vorderman MA (Cantab) MBE. Carol says:

“We are nearing the start of a dramatic transformation that will impact the lives of people around the world, just as we did 20 years ago with the new technology of the internet and the problems of online security.

“At the time, I was working alongside other campaigners and Home Secretary David Blunkett on legislation to make Grooming Online an illegal act. With the new digital universe fast approaching, I believe its incorporation into the lives of young people will be monumental and will bring new issues around sexual harassment and abuse.

“Young people need to be able to use these new innovations safely, and their parents or carers also need to feel confident to allow them to get the most out of this incredible technology.

“While I hugely welcome the Online Safety Bill and support Secretary of State Nadine Dorries, I believe it needs to go further into the future-proof technologies of tomorrow. that the metaverse is hopefully explicitly included in the final bill, if not through secondary legislation, the UK government can take a leadership position in this important space, protecting children and enabling them to learn, socialize and – eventually – even work safely in this exciting new frontier of the digital world.

The new IET report offers three recommendations for governments to shape the future of the metaverse:

  1. Make the online security bill permanent – While the Online Safety Bill applies to immersive technologies and the Metaverse, it needs some tweaking to make it properly fit for purpose, rather than an afterthought. The bill currently focuses on the content that is published rather than the activity that occurs. In the metaverse, activity happens in real time. The bill needs to be adapted to work well in these lively and active contexts that are more akin to real-life events.

  1. Encourage a positive and healthy metaverse culture – In the case of the metaverse and immersive technologies, user-centric security features aimed at combating harassment and abuse are not enough. Solutions offered by tech companies for user safety, e.g. block and mute feature, are mostly initiated by the victim. By the time a victim has found the block, mute, and report button, the psychological damage has often already been done. Tech companies need to be incentivized to address these issues of harassment and abuse at the grassroots – by addressing the culture of these spaces – rather than blaming the victims.

  1. Accelerating Immersive Literacy Among Policy Makers, Regulators, and Politicians – A wide range of VR users say the Metaverse feels like a dangerous Wild West. This must be resolved. Governments, politicians and policy makers need to be aware of these immersive technologies and the activity that takes place on these immersive platforms. Without this awareness, decisions will either be made in the dark or not at all. Decision makers need to experience virtual reality and spend time in the metaverse. The IET will provide support and access to equipment to support this development of immersive literacy.

Learn more about the metaverse and the report, co-authored by Catherine Allen, Limina Immersive and Verity McIntosh, University of the West of England, and how you can support the EIT’s campaign for inclusion in the project Online Safety Act via the IET website: http://www.theiet.org/safeguarding-the-metaverse.