Safely Navigating the Rise of the Metaverse

January 19, 2023

The Metaverse Explained

Simply put, the metaverse is a virtual-reality space in which users can interact with other users in a computer-generated environment. It is an immersive, 3D platform in which you or your avatar are embodied in an experience through virtual reality headsets, augmented reality glasses, phones, laptops and other screens.

Eighteen years ago, we were on the cusp of what become 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.

If all the hype is to be believed, we will soon be entering the next phase of the Internet, or more commonly known as the “metaverse.” The metaverse is the Internet as we know it but with the addition of a fully immersive experience that allows users to go from a concert to a mall, buy clothing or even rent real estate. In many ways, the metaverse is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed. 

Benefits of the Metaverse

The catalog of immersive experiences available to users in the metaverse is growing each day. Like most current virtual spaces, the introduction of new virtual spaces like the metaverse presents the opportunity to prove incredibly beneficial, both within classrooms and independently.

More than half of parents agree that benefits of technology outweigh the potential harm when it comes to their children’s use of technology, and further development of the metaverse will empower teachers and students to employ new educational approaches in teaching and learning. The metaverse can raise its profile and show its value by providing increased opportunities to both children and adults. The excitement and momentum generated by the metaverse throughout society has the potential to introduce various coding languages and development tools to a new wave of interested developers. 

The opportunities in the metaverse are endless, as they are with the Internet, and provides increased opportunities to children and adults around the world for education, entrepreneurship, self-actualization, discovery, and wonder.

Risks of the Metaverse

The metaverse presents unprecedented opportunities and rewards for families and children, but also poses similar risks as any other virtual space. Virtual spaces like the metaverse play a huge part in developing social and emotional skills and we must be informed to make sure we are aware of the potential barriers to development. 

Instances of harm in the metaverse are similar to those in multiplayer games, social apps, other virtual spaces, and even in schools. It is important that we mitigate the impact in the developing stages of the metaverse because of the potential for it to be more impactful since realism in the metaverse is heightened. When individuals feel threatened in spaces like the metaverse, they are more apt to experience it emotionally, psychologically, and physiologically, and leads in decreased use of technology or the platform and be less willing to interact with others digitally.

As challenging as the Internet and social media can be for young people to navigate, the metaverse, in whatever shape it eventually takes, will amplify these risks and novel categories of harm. The growth of the metaverse leads to continuing concerns regarding empathy, data privacy, “screen” time, digital wellbeing, digital citizenship and cyberbullying.

Safely Navigate the Metaverse

Parents and caregivers must be properly equipped to confidently navigate the online world and metaverse with their families. Technology moves fast, and the growing generational gap in technological aptitude can pose a challenge for parents attempting to navigate digital spaces that their children may be more familiar with. As we move forward into an even more advanced digital age, and even new frontiers like the metaverse, it is essential for parents to stay informed about the latest platforms and online spaces that their children are using to learn about the world. 

Prioritizing self-education when it comes to tech updates serves as the first line of defense in keeping students safe. The more confident parents feel about their own understanding of technology, the more effective they will be when providing guidance and parameters for their children’s online behaviors.

With a general understanding in place, parents and caregivers need to set clear rules and guidelines for using the metaverse. Provide your children with guidance about appropriate behavior when interacting with others online. Empower your children and family to be responsible digital citizens, which means applying the standards of behavior we follow in the real world to the digital world. 

There is no "one size fits all" approach to good digital parenting, especially when it comes to kids of different ages. The best way to approach online and metaverse safety is to facilitate as much early digital literacy as possible and have a continuous, open dialogue with your family and children about technology, social media, the Internet and the metaverse. Some parents may find it difficult to start that conversation, but it is one that is needed to help guide children at every age to ensure a positive online and metaverse experience. In these talks, focus lessons on empathy, safety and civility. Instilling digital literacy early with children will encourage them to engage in the online world thoughtfully and consciously. 

It is important that parents are confident in their understanding of digital devices, apps, games, and their ability to help guide their children at every age to ensure a positive experience online. As a general rule of thumb, apply these steps for effective, good digital parenting in the metaverse and all virtual spaces:

  1. Talk with your kids 
  2. Educate yourself 
  3. Set ground rules & apply sanctions 
  4. Friend and follow, but don’t stalk 
  5. Explore, share and celebrate 
  6. Be a good digital role model

Next Steps to Ensure the Promise of the Metaverse

The promise, opportunities and benefits of the metaverse are endless. Responsibility lies with the government, companies, schools, and parents to prioritize digital safety and collaborate to make the metaverse safe and productive for children and families. Although it is inevitable that conflict will arise, ongoing dialogue about the metaverse is needed.

We must continually educate and inform governments, regulators and the industry around the world on a balanced approach to digital safety. When it comes to the policies that govern the relationship between technology use and the physical and mental health of children, the most effective laws are based on data from robust, longitudinal research. And as the Internet and metaverse becomes more prevalent in everyday life, we need to empower our schools to provide lessons around empathy, safety and digital civility.

Companies need to continuously assess and reassess safety features in the metaverse. New features need to be developed and tweaked to prevent malicious behavior and released with increased frequency to ensure families’ safety. While we don't have the exact answer on how to make sure the metaverse a safe space for children and families, we can still do our part in bringing the right people together to start making it safer.  

Today, our children have an incredible opportunity to learn, create and communicate through the use of technology. So many decisions about devices, software, apps and games have to be made and at increasingly younger ages. Especially with the steady integration of virtual spaces in homes, classrooms and other environments for child development. Parents and caregivers need to be proactive, confident and empowered in their understanding of digital devices, apps, and games to guide their children through a positive metaverse experience. Ensuring safety in the metaverse is definitely a journey, like parenting itself. And there is no such thing as perfection. Just good enough.

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.