Meta to allow teens on Horizon Worlds despite safety concerns

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Meta Platforms Inc., the parent company of Facebook, has opened its flagship virtual reality app, Horizon Worlds, to teenagers aged between 13 and 17. Previously, the social VR platform was restricted to users 18 or older.

The company announced on Tuesday that the app would be available to teenagers in the United States and Canada over the next few weeks. The move is part of its plan to increase engagement on its Quest headsets and to gain traction in the emerging metaverse.

This decision was made despite objections from several organizations, which had asked Meta to abandon its plans to allow access to the app for those under 18.

Safety concerns

The decision had been expected following the leak of a February memo revealing the plan to the public, which incited protests from various parties.

Senators Richard Blumenthal and Ed Markey wrote a letter to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, arguing that providing access to a “digital space rife with potential harms” would be unwise for young users.

Prior to the announcement, child advocacy groups had urged Meta to reconsider its plan to allow teenagers on the Horizon Worlds social VR platform, citing concerns about potential exposure to explicit and discriminatory content.

Meta has faced challenges ensuring user safety on the platform, with negative reports following the initial launch. Horizon Worlds’ age restrictions and the presence of “community guides” do not eliminate the risk of children being exposed to predators, as some kids and adults pretending to be kids can still find ways to access the app.

“Age verification does not eliminate children using those technologies,” Eliza McCoy, executive director for outreach, training and prevention at NCMEC, told the Washington Post.

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) received almost 38,000 reports of online enticement in 2020, a 97 percent increase from the previous year, and expects the numbers to grow as more people turn to online interactions due to the pandemic.

The company introduced a “personal boundary” feature to address these issues, but the vast scale of speech-based interactions on the platform makes moderation a problematic task.

While the virtual-reality app is meant to be limited to users aged 18 and older, many young children have already started using it. Complaints from users about children ruining the experience for adults are common in the app’s reviews.

Unfortunately, whenever online platforms attract children, sexual predators often follow, as they view these newly-built environments as easy targets.

“They see an environment that is not well protected and does not have clear systems of reporting. They’ll go there first to take advantage of the fact that it is a safe ground for them to abuse or groom kids,” said Sarah Gardner, Vice President of External Affairs at Thorn, a nonprofit organization dedicated to safeguarding children from sexual abuse on the internet.

In addition, it’s not just children who are at risk. Female users have reported unwanted advances and harassment from trolls. A beta tester also reported an incident of virtual groping in November.

Enhanced protections and supervision

Meta has announced the implementation of new safety features, including parental supervision tools and back-end protections as a countermeasure.

Parents can set up parental supervision for their teens by inviting them to connect through Meta’s Family Center. This allows parents to adjust and lock safety features, monitor their teen’s activity on the app, and block access if necessary.

The company has also changed the “people you might know” feature to exclude adults that a teen doesn’t know. Teens will be able to choose who they follow and who can follow them back, and their profiles are set to private by default.

Meta has also introduced a unique safety measure by transforming the voices of strangers into garbled sounds and limiting interaction between teens and adults. The virtual reality platform also hides a teen’s active status or location on the app, although these settings can be changed if desired.


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