In a blog post on Friday, Facebook and Instagram’s parent company Meta announced plans to lower the age limit for using its Quest headset from 13 to 10 years old.
This wasn’t the first time Meta slashed its users’ age requirements. In April, the company changed the minimum age for using Horizon Worlds, its VR-based social network, allowing those under 18 to access it.
Based on the information provided to The Verge, the newly-announced age requirement will not apply to this platform — only those 13 or older can use Horizon Worlds freely.
The company said that this change would allow families to have more ways to use and enjoy the Meta Quest. They can enjoy interactive experiences like virtual travel to faraway places or witness historical moments. They also have the choice to play a game together.
“Families can explore the depths of the ocean, tour Machu Picchu, visit the International Space Station, orbit Jupiter, or simply play their favorite games,” Meta said in the blog post.
By reducing the minimum age criteria for the Quest headset, Meta aims to introduce the metaverse to younger generations. As children grow familiar with technology at a young age, they are more likely to continue using it as they mature.
Raising concerns for children’s safety
Despite pressure from lawmakers to avoid targeting younger users, Meta made the minimum age requirement even lower, sparking fresh concerns about privacy and safety among parents and regulators.
According to the Straits Times, the company is in talks with regulators to address these concerns. As Meta is committed to “building safe and positive experiences for young people,” the company is also working to develop new privacy controls and parental management features.
Meta will implement strict privacy controls on its devices. Starting later this year, parents can set up accounts for their children on Meta’s Quest 2 and 3 headsets. They can set time limits, approve or reject app downloads and block access to existing software.
These pre-teens can only see and use apps and content appropriate for the age group without ads. Parents will also have the choice of whether or not their child’s data is used to refine the experience.
Meta Horizon profiles for younger users will be private by default. Only parents can approve follower requests. The children’s active status will also not be automatically shared with others.
Meta insists that this decision can also be beneficial for education. Parents and educators can use Meta’s platform for virtual science lessons and educational games. Most titles in the store are appropriate for ages 10 and older, as rated by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) and the International Age Rating Coalition (IARC).
“There’s a vast array of engaging and educational apps, games, and more across our platform, the majority of which are rated for ages 10 and up,” Meta said in the post,” the company said.
To make it easier for parents to manage their family’s online experiences, Meta also plans to invest in Family Center. This move will allow parents to create parent-managed accounts for their pre-teens and set up parental controls through this menu.
At the same time, Meta will also continue collaborating with parents, experts and privacy advocates to design age-appropriate experiences.
Laws protecting children in digital space
The use of technology by teenagers and children has been a topic of debate for many years. In May, U.S. surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a public warning about the potential risks of social media to young people’s mental health and well-being. He urged policymakers to limit their social media access to help protect their privacy.
Virtual reality, like the one Meta’s Horizon Worlds offer, is a new technology with potential risks. Even though it is a little different than social media, researchers found that harassment, assault, bullying and hate speech are also common in virtual reality games.
Therefore, regulators at The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) established the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) law. COPPA requires websites and apps directed at children under 13 to obtain parental consent before collecting personal information. Theoretically, the new Meta policies will comply with COPPA.
Meta and its platforms have been on the radar of regulators’ concerns. Previously, the FTC was considering measures to prevent Meta from profiting off of the data of young users. It also criticized the company for putting young users at risk.
Health risks of using VR headsets
There is a concern among parents about whether or not it is safe for children to use VR headsets. To address this issue, researchers compare the experience of using VR headsets with playing a video game on TV.
When a child plays a video game on a TV, their eyes can focus on objects near or far away. However, when a child wears a VR/AR headset, the screen is always the same distance away, even if the objects in virtual reality seem closer or farther away. This can cause eye strain and other problems.
In an interview with ZDNet, Duke University pediatric optometrist Dr. Nathan Cheung explained that these wearables could cause eye and neck strain in children. These issues may be worse for children with smaller bodies and developing eyes since the headsets — including Meta Quest — can weigh over one pound.
As VR headsets might impact a person’s vision, including difficulty focusing, tracking objects and perceiving depth, VR manufacturers have warned not to use them for a prolonged period.
Unfortunately, there is only limited research on the long-term effects of VR on depth perception and focus in children. While there is no definitive evidence that VR is dangerous for children, its safety is also not guaranteed.
Marientina Gotsis, director of the Behavioral Health Center at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, made a similar statement. She mentioned that it is challenging to conduct research with children due to ethical and regulatory restrictions.
Gotsis warns that excessive VR use could harm young brains, as they are still developing. Children may also not notice discomfort and may be too engrossed in gaming to remove their headsets.