What happens to children when the physical and virtual worlds merge?
10 things you need to know about the metaverse, extended reality and children
4 minute read
Everyone has been talking about the metaverse, but what exactly is the metaverse? At its simplest, the metaverse is a proposed virtual space in which people theoretically can do much of what they do in the real world, except through an integrated network of three-dimensional (3D) virtual worlds or environments.
While extended reality (XR), which includes virtual and augmented reality, is growing as a way to experience virtual environments in an immersive way, the development of the metaverse is still very young and its impacts may not yet be obvious. Here are 10 things to know about how the metaverse may affect children.
1. The metaverse doesn't exist (yet), but today’s virtual environments that children occupy are pointers to the future.
While today’s virtual environments and social games – such as the popular platforms Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite – are standalone platforms and not all fully immersive worlds, they are early signs of where the metaverse could be headed. Children and youth already constitute tens of millions of users of such virtual environments and game spaces.
2. Technologies on which virtual environments are built are maturing and becoming more mainstream.
These include better and cheaper XR devices; advances in artificial intelligence (AI) to create virtual worlds and chatbots; and digital currencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) that enable the virtual economies to which children are active contributors. Governments – including those of the USA, EU and China – are supporting metaverse-related sectors by investing in them.
Go in depth: Read the rapid analysis report The Metaverse, Extended Reality and Children.
3. The metaverse and XR technologies offer many potential benefits for children.
Children could learn in a more immersive and engaging way by traveling virtually to remote locations or reliving a historical event. Mental health support, like reducing anxiety, could be provided using XR technologies that help children learn how to manage their symptoms in a safe, simulated environment. Creative play through world building in virtual environments, and identity development through customized avatars, support children’s development.
4. But there are risks for children, such as to their safety and security.
Safety concerns include exposure to graphic sexual content, bullying, sexual harassment and abuse, all of which can feel more “real” in immersive virtual environments. Risks to children’s information security, such as through virtual identity theft and avatar duplication and misuse (leading to fraud and cybercrime), can be amplified when avatars are the mode of representation in virtual environments.
Vast amounts of data, including about non-verbal behavior like gestures, facial expressions, eye movement and heart rate, could be collected in virtual environments...
5. Children’s privacy and freedoms could also be at risk through massive data collection mechanisms.
Vast amounts of data, including about non-verbal behavior like gestures, facial expressions, eye movement and heart rate, could be collected in virtual environments and through XR technologies – potentially allowing large tech companies to facilitate hyper-personalized profiling, advertising and increased surveillance, impacting children’s privacy and other rights and freedoms.
6. The impacts of virtual environments and XR on children and their rights are not yet fully understood.
We don’t yet know how children might experience XR technologies differently from adults, and how spending time in virtual environments might affect children's various developmental stages and their physical, cognitive, emotional and psychological capacities. Caution, and more research, is needed.
7. The metaverse and XR could widen the digital divide.
Limited availability and affordability around the building blocks of the metaverse and XR (such as reliable and high-speed internet and cloud services, XR sets, computing power and customized AI models) may adversely impact developing countries, both in terms of children’s access and developers’ ability to create new and localized content and solutions. The resulting uneven access bodes poorly for diversity, equity, and inclusion in virtual environments, especially for girls, children in low socioeconomic settings, and those with disabilities.
8. While existing regulations, such as around user’s data in the EU, provide cover for children, some gaps may exist that need to be addressed proactively.
Given the growing interest in, and rapid advancement of, metaverse-related technologies, it is crucial that policies and regulations not only keep pace to realize potential benefits, but that potential harms and unintended consequences for children are anticipated well in advance and mitigated in new regulations, technology design and implementation.
...it is crucial that policies and regulations not only keep pace to realize potential benefits, but that potential harms and unintended consequences for children are anticipated well in advance and mitigated...
9. Policymakers and regulators should ensure that guardrails are in place and applied to protect and empower children.
UNICEF recommends that policymakers and regulators assess and adjust, if needed, regulations and regulatory frameworks to ensure that metaverse-related technologies do not violate children's rights. Where policy or regulatory gaps may be found, they should develop open standards, principles or legislation to provide safeguards for children. They should also foster enabling virtual environments for all children through promoting inclusion, child rights by design and research.
10. Technology companies providing metaverse-related products and services have a key role to play in protecting and empowering children.
UNICEF recommends companies prioritize the best interests of the child in the development and implementation of metaverse-related technologies by, for example, applying the highest existing data protection standards to children's data in the metaverse and virtual environments. Internally and with other industry stakeholders, civil society groups, researchers and regulators, companies should work to protect children and address harmful content and behaviour in the metaverse.