Happy Safer Internet (Metaverse) Day

February 8, 2022

Every year on the second Tuesday in February, the world celebrates Safer Internet Day. SID, as it is affectionately known, began as a European Union initiative in 2004 and has now spread to over 170 countries. What the forward-thinking Brussels bureaucrats could not have imagined, however, is how much the Internet would change in these intervening years. 

Eighteen years ago, we were on the cusp of what became known as Web 2.0 or the dawning of social media and user-generated content. Sites like MySpace upended what we thought of as websites – moving from static pages of content to dynamic and ever-changing profiles created by “users.” And, for the first time, kids were creating the content we used to try to keep them away from and doing so on “smart” phones that could be taken anywhere and accessed anytime.

Fast forward to today and we find ourselves looking out at a very different landscape. Many of the “traditional” safety concerns are still with us - from cyberbullying to misinformation, and overuse to oversharing. Even so, in our own research we found that Generation Z showed widespread enthusiasm for connected life, with 89% reporting they like using social media and 87% excited about the impact technology will have on the future. 

The picture is mixed, however, when it comes to safety. Most Gen Z users find managing their online safety to be overwhelming. 60% of parents feel they can’t keep up with the changes happening online. And, not surprisingly, three out of five Gen Z respondents say they teach their parents more than they teach them about online safety.

While the current state of the digital world can feel like both a boon and a bane, what will the next eighteen years bring? Can we imagine what the online world of 2040 will look like, and will we be celebrating or commiserating on SID that year?

If all the hype is to be believed, we will soon be entering the next phase of the Internet, which many refer to as the “metaverse.” It is a word coined by the science fiction writer Neal Stephenson in his novel “Snow Crash” and further explored in the novel and movie “Ready Player One”, where people in a post-apocalyptic society spend most of their time in a virtual reality world called “The Oasis” which they access using VR headsets.  

Anyone who joined Second Life will be familiar with the concept of moving an avatar around buildings, street scenes, homes and gardens all the while interacting with other avatars. And many massive multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft and the Roblox platform have their own currency that can be earned and then exchanged for virtual clothes, equipment and weapons. In many ways, the metaverse is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.

One company is so convinced of this future, it even changed its name from Facebook to Meta. Mark Zuckerberg has shouted from the virtual rooftops that we will all be donning headsets, augmented reality glasses, and using ordinary laptops and phones to live, work, play and socialize in these new alternate realities. His definition is instructive: “The metaverse will provide a persistent, synchronous environment where people can be together – a hybrid between the social platforms we see today, but an environment where you’re embodied in it.

There’s even a new strain of philosophy to explain and explore the metaverse. David Chalmers’ new book, “Reality+'' dives headlong into fundamental questions about the nature of virtual objects and experiences. At one point he states, “My guess is that within a century we will have virtual realities that are indistinguishable from the non-virtual world.”  He even questions whether we’re not already in a simulated reality.  

As challenging as social media can be for young people to navigate, the metaverse, in whatever shape it eventually takes, will throw up new risks and novel categories of harm. It will also present unprecedented opportunities and rewards for us and our children. We are at a tipping point in the development of the Web and a more “embodied” future is what lies ahead. Perhaps next year, we will celebrate Safer Metaverse Day, with the task of preparing the next generation of users (and their parents) on how to stay safe, civil and secure in these new virtual worlds.

Written by

Stephen Balkam

For the past 30 years, Stephen Balkam has had a wide range of leadership roles in the nonprofit sector in both the US and UK. He is currently the Founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), an international, nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, DC. FOSI’s mission is to make the online world safer for kids and their families. FOSI convenes the top thinkers and practitioners in government, industry and the nonprofit sectors to collaborate and innovate and to create a “culture of responsibility” in the online world.

Prior to FOSI, Stephen was the Founder and CEO of the Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA) and led a team which developed the world’s leading content labeling system on the web. While with ICRA, Stephen served on the US Child Online Protection Commission (COPA) in 2000 and was named one of the Top 50 UK Movers and Shakers, Internet Magazine, 2001.

In 1994, Stephen was named the first Executive Director of the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC) which created a unique self-labeling system for computer games and then, in 1996, Stephen launched RSACi – a forerunner to the ICRA website labeling system. For his efforts in online safety, Stephen was given the 1998 Carl Bertelsmann Prize in Gutersloh, Germany, for innovation and responsibility in the Information Society and was invited to the first and subsequent White House Internet Summits during the Clinton Administration.

Stephen’s other positions include the Executive Director of the National Stepfamily Association (UK); General Secretary of the Islington Voluntary Action Council; Executive Director of Camden Community Transport as well as management positions at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (London) and Inter-Action. Stephen’s first job was with Burroughs Machines (now Unisys) and he had a spell working for West Nally Ltd – a sports sponsorship PR company.

Stephen received a BA, magna cum laude, in Psychology from University College, Cardiff, Wales in 1977. A native of Washington, DC, Stephen spent many years in the UK and is now has dual citizenship. He writes regularly for the Huffington Post, appears often on TV and has appeared on nationally syndicated TV and radio programs such as MSNBC, CNN, NPR and the BBC and has been interviewed by leading newspapers such as the Washington Post, New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, radio and in the mainstream press. He has given presentations and spoken in 15 countries on 4 continents.