Are virtual worlds safe for children?

Read Time:15 Minute, 23 Second


But are they safe for the children who use them?

Youngsters have been visiting online spaces—such as Minecraft, Roblox and Fortnite—for years now, using them to hang out and play with friends (and sometimes strangers).

Those experiences are becoming increasingly lifelike, thanks to improving graphics and virtual-reality headsets like Meta’s Quest 2. Instead of just watching online worlds on a 2-D screen, users can be inside of them—not only chatting with others but also touching and manipulating virtual objects and attending virtual events like concerts. Some in the tech industry think that the next step is the metaverse—a future 3-D version of the internet made up of virtual worlds where people will get together to work, learn and play.

As virtual reality gets more engaging and lifelike, though, the potential dangers multiply. In some sense, many of the concerns are magnified versions of existing concerns: It can be much more tempting to participate in risky activities like gambling, for instance, when you can virtually walk into a cyber-casino. And it can be tougher to spot predators when they are hiding behind ever more-believable avatars.

What’s more, the long-term effects of virtual worlds aren’t known. It isn’t clear what happens to a child’s mind after spending hours upon hours in made-up worlds—while potentially detaching from real-world relationships and interests.

Most virtual worlds don’t allow children under 13 to enter certain spaces. For that matter, many headset makers say their devices aren’t designed for children under 13. But the age limits in these virtual worlds aren’t strictly enforced, and many parents allow their children to roam freely online without supervision.

All of which raises some big questions: Should children enter these increasingly realistic virtual worlds in the first place? And how can they stay safe if they do?

The Wall Street Journal hosted a videoconference about these questions with Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn, an associate professor at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia and the founding director of the Games and Virtual Environments Lab; Rachel Kowert, a psychologist and the research director of Take This, a nonprofit mental-health organization that provides information to the gaming industry; and Jessica Stone, a licensed psychologist and author of “Digital Play Therapy: A Clinician’s Guide to Comfort and Competence.” Edited excerpts follow.

What’s real, what’s pretend

WSJ: What is different about the way developing brains respond to virtual reality versus 2-D experiences in games and social media? And does that concern you?

DR. KOWERT: There is a lot more sensory information available in a VR space and, because of that, the experience within these spaces is likely to feel more psychologically intense. This doesn’t concern me in any specific way, per se; even kids’ visual cortexes are very good at distinguishing what’s real from what’s not. We are not yet at a point where technology can create a digitized space that is indistinguishable from a nondigitized space.

DR. STONE: Anything that impacts a developing brain concerns me. But I don’t think we can definitively answer this question at this time. There is little research out there and what does exist is predominantly not done well. I also think it is inappropriate to pinpoint a particular age for concern. An experience can feel more real in 3-D than 2-D, but the breadth and depth of the impact depends upon many variables. On one hand, virtual reality is not a whole lot different from what kids are already experiencing: They’re already on social media, they’re already online playing games, they’re already talking to avatars on the screen. On the other hand, VR is highly immersive; you can feel that you’re part of the environment. But kids who have played videogames are adept at discerning reality from cyberreality.

DR. AHN: Studies demonstrate that younger kids generally start being able to tell fantasy from reality around the age of 4, and then fully develop the skills to tell programming content from advertising content around age 7. At this young age, I wouldn’t let kids play in VR on their own. You have superpowers in virtual worlds, like flying, driving fast cars and stopping time, and very young kids may struggle to differentiate VR from reality.

For the older kids, say above the age of 8, VR use starts making a lot more sense. At this point, however, their social and relationship-building skills are still very much underdeveloped. For example, their understanding of how friendships are formed and maintained are going to be upended by how avatars can suddenly appear and disappear in VR worlds. Parents need to have conversations about how to deal with avatars. Avatars may experiment with their powers in VR and not follow the social norms that children might be used to. However, once these conversations have been had and children understand that the rules may be different from the physical world, I wouldn’t be too concerned with older kids. Kids are fast learners and they understand that different rules apply to different contexts.

What does concern me most is that kids really struggle with this sense of not knowing who’s behind an avatar, especially before the age of 7. Anonymity is a hard concept to grasp. Learning this takes a lot of trial and error, and parents should monitor their kids’ games on their phones or computers so that they know what’s going on.

Even in Roblox, there is a lot of bad language. It’s basically a virtual playground, and not everybody in this playground plays nice. Kids already know this from the real world, but they need to understand that the avatar is not necessarily the same as the physical representation.

DR. STONE: Personally, I don’t think avatars need to look just like the real person.

WSJ: Is a child’s developing concept of reality harmed by spending a lot of time in a virtual world?

DR. STONE: The answer is, ultimately: It depends. What is even defined as “a lot of time”? That delves into value systems. One might see a person playing games for hours. Another might see the person practicing social skills, exploring their identity, gaining a sense of mastery, frustration tolerance and critical thinking—and see great value in that.

A young person can go into a virtual world and try out different roles. And isn’t that what adolescence is? Figuring out your self-identification, what you believe in, how you want to represent and present yourself, how people respond. What an amazing gift it is to be able to do that in an environment that doesn’t have direct, immediate, real-world consequences!

DR. AHN: VR is a wonderful platform that allows you to really experiment with and explore identities in ways that you cannot in the physical world. VR can seem more realistic and believable because it mimics firsthand experience. But on the flip side, say in adolescence, we need to be cautious of what we call “identity tourism,” a term coined by Dr. Lisa Nakamura at the University of Michigan. So, say, I’m going to try out being a Black person, and I think, “Hey, that wasn’t bad. I don’t know what other people are talking about!” As researchers, we’re doing a lot of work on if it’s even ethical to embody different racial characters or different marginalized populations. In these formative years of adolescence, I think we need to be very cautious of kids forming incorrect or inaccurate perceptions of taking on these different identities, particularly when these identities are from marginalized or under-resourced populations. The last thing we want is for kids to think that they completely understand a particular identity by embodying avatars of a different race or gender for a few hours in a virtual world.

DR. KOWERT: What concerns me, especially for kids, is that the virtual worlds that we have now just do not reflect the problems that we have in the real world. A lot of the conversations about the metaverse make it seem pretty utopic: “We’re all happy avatars, so clearly we no longer have the problems that we have in the physical world”—which is so far from the truth.

Toxic environments

WSJ: Does VR becoming more lifelike make it more dangerous for developing minds?

DR. KOWERT: If nothing changes from the way games have been developed, we’re going to have the same problems: a lot of hate, a lot of harassment, a lot of negative interactions. But if we look at the other side, the metaverse is a place we occupy once the world is no longer habitable. Now think about the past two years. Virtual spaces were the saving grace of Covid-19! Thank God we could connect with people in a playful, social, interactive space like in a game.

DR. AHN: I had my kid in digital learning for 15 months, and without Roblox, I just don’t think he would have had any sort of social interactions with peers, particularly during the first few months of the pandemic when in-person interactions were so limited.

DR. KOWERT: We absolutely have to discuss the toxicity that will occur in these spaces with our kids. If you let your children in there untethered, without monitoring, without teaching them about digital citizenship, it’s going to have a negative impact on their mental health.

DR. AHN: Prior research has demonstrated that how realistic something looks in VR is less important than how realistically it behaves. So, even if an avatar is cartoonish, as long as it behaves like a real thing—meaning we’re able to interact with it using natural movements—then our brains are accommodating. This will lead to different kinds of bullying now, because, “Hey, I have hands! I’m able to approach and use interpersonal skills!” It’s not just words and pictures anymore. When bullying happens in VR, more contextual details are left in your mind: how this bullying happened, where it happened, when it happened. That memory is a lot more vivid than, let’s say, a post about me that made me feel terrible.

My labmate at Stanford, Kathryn Segovia, has done research with VR headsets where, especially if the kids are 7 years old or younger, they will come back a week later and swear up and down that they did swim underwater with an orca named Flippy. And so false memories may be another thing to be concerned about.

WSJ: Could traumatic experiences be worse in VR, and is that a particular issue for young people?

DR. KOWERT: Online harassment has a range of impacts, from short-term distress to long-term post-traumatic stress disorder symptomology. I recently conducted a survey among members of the gaming industry to assess the mental-health impact of harassment in social media. I found that almost one quarter reported PTSD symptomology from the experience, and 10% reported they had suicidal thoughts as the result of the harassment.

Heightened anxiety and lower self-esteem have also been reported as results of victimization within online games. Knowing that VR spaces have greater sensory input than 2-D social spaces, I think it is safe to say that negative experiences in VR could have a greater psychological impact.

DR. STONE: I’m a little cautious of saying “greater” here, because I am not sure what we are comparing. Greater than an in-person trauma? Greater than passive TV watching? While I do acknowledge the immersive power of VR, and that we don’t know all the depths of it, I also want to be cautious about comparisons until we have more data. Speaking in generalities, I think it is quite safe and appropriate to say a 25-and-over person will process information and experiences differently than an adolescent, and both will process differently than someone aged 7 and under. What those differences are is the crux. I wish it were simple enough to say, “these are the impacts for 7 and under,” “for adolescents,” “for young adults.” But these are not simple questions, nor will there be simple answers.

DR. AHN: You’re not going to find a lot of data comparing traumatic experiences in VR against other platforms. This would require someone administering traumatic experiences in VR and, given that these experiences can be high impact, that would be unethical. But my research shows that kids age 9 to 13 can form relationships with nonhuman, computer-driven virtual characters and can consider them friends over time. A lot of these experiences seem “real” to them. As Rachel mentioned, we can certainly make a reasonable assumption that traumatic experiences in online spaces are bad overall, and that VR experiences may leave a strong impact that lasts.

DR. STONE: Yes, and we can assume that the flip side is also true: that the impact can be positive, just as I strive for in a therapeutic setting. I am very aware that my perspective includes therapist, parent and personal use, and in therapy the environment and interactions are certainly more controlled than the typical person’s experience.

The parental role

WSJ: How can developers ensure these virtual worlds are safe for kids?

DR. KOWERT: There’s a slow trend, at least in the gaming industry, to have input from psychologists, but we always seem to come in at the end of the development process. It would be great if we came in earlier, especially as we talk about VR becoming more common in our everyday life. Right now, using highly immersive VR headsets is not so ubiquitous, it’s not super affordable, not everybody has one. We still have the opportunity to make it a place where everyone can feel safe and welcome and included. Victoria Tran [community director for the social game “Among Us”] has talked about developing “kinder communities”: how you can put in structures at the foundation of these communities that are more prosocial. That requires developers to engage outside of their bubbles. I don’t really know if this type of collaboration is financially lucrative. We just have to advocate for our kids and convince developers.

DR. STONE: Another reality is that people go where they are told not to, they do what they were told not to do. Age limits are going to be violated. It’s important to consider this when developing games. Having protections in place—being able to block people, activating a bubble (with a predetermined diameter that prohibits others from intruding into one’s personal space), reporting bullying, etc.—is essential. How can we work with developers and establish standards? How can we impart digital citizenship from a young age? What are the practical ways we can teach and empower parents?

WSJ: How much of all this does fall on parents?

DR. STONE: It’s just like going into life. When I send my daughter to school, she is not being directly supervised by me. She’s being supervised by strangers at her new school. I try to give her the appropriate tools for a 14-year-old. VR is the same. As a parent, learn as much as you can, be a good consumer of information, enter your child’s world and learn for yourself how to help them navigate these spaces.

DR. KOWERT: Virtual reality is just another tool that adds to the collection of communication tools that we already have. It’s unfamiliar, and it’s new, but new tools will continue to come out. They will neither save you nor destroy you. But they can be very useful. You, as the parent, have to teach your kids how to behave. If someone steals your shovel in the real world, you don’t push them or hit them or say mean things to them. The virtual world is not that different. We have to be unafraid to have the conversation about what goes on in there and how to navigate it. Play with them so you can show them that they can always block someone, or just take the headset off. Ask them how their day in RuneScape went. These are your kids and this is what they’re interested in. If you can sit through a 3-year-old’s soccer game, you can sit through a conversation about a virtual game.

DR. AHN: All new technology is approached with suspicion and fear and moral panic. And it’s normal to be afraid of unknown things. But we are learning so much, this is the new reality, and it’s not going anywhere.

Maybe all the responsibility doesn’t need to fall only on the parents. It’s a community activity to raise a kid in a lot of different situations. If you are able to monitor your kids even a little bit, great, but everyone needs to help provide healthy and safe spaces for kids, not just their parents. Right now, these virtual worlds are more relevant to children’s needs and interests than physical playgrounds. It’s a part of our responsibility, as parents and professionals, to advocate for safe, age-appropriate spaces for them to hang out in.

DR. STONE: Companies that are creating these worlds should have monitors in those spaces, especially if we’re talking about kids. But it comes back to digital citizenship. I had a really proud mom moment recently. I was sitting in my office and my son was behind me playing Gorilla Tag, and some people in the game were saying some negative things about homosexuality. And my son, who was 12, said, “That’s not OK. Don’t do that. I don’t want to hear it.” And the person wouldn’t stop, so he blocked him. Being involved, co-playing with your child in the VR world, increasing your media literacy, having discussions about digital citizenship—that’s all so important to do as a parent.

Ms. Mitchell is a writer in Chicago.

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