Minors in the Metaverse: What You Need to Know About Safety
What sort of online mischief did you get up to before you reached 18? You likely came across some form of explicit content or an unsavory individual through gaming, social media, or another peer-to-peer network. Considering the expansive nature of the world wide web and the confidence that anonymity affords, the internet can be a scary place for kids and teens.
While a wide array of parental controls are available to help protect minors on the internet, the same isn’t entirely true for the metaverse. Built on the blockchain and designed around the idea of decentralization, the metaverse’s current form can feel like the wild west, with a lack of regulation that can be intimidating and undeniably dangerous for kids.
While many preach for an open and accessible metaverse, it begs the question of whether or not the fabled next iteration of the internet will cater to children like any other user. If that’s the case, how might we protect the next generation from the objectionable parts of the internet? Can age restrictions exist on the blockchain? Or would implementing restrictions in the metaverse go against the core values of Web3 in the first place?
What we mean by “metaverse”
The term “metaverse” has been defined in a range of ways. For big-name companies like Meta, the term refers to 3D worlds that hinge on virtual or augmented reality. To this end, media, gaming, and tech giants might consider the metaverse as an experience to be built, marketed, and sold. But that doesn’t sound like the vast, permissionless, limitless metaverse many envisioned when reading Snow Crash, where author Neal Stephenson’s coined the term.
While the VR versions of the metaverse are undoubtedly valid and important, according to many in Web3, the metaverse can only be built on the blockchain with NFTs, crypto, and other forms of decentralized technology. As of 2023, the future of the metaverse and how it might coincide with these Web3 technologies is still unwritten. As a result, it’s difficult to say what might actually come to fruition. The debate surrounding whether or not the metaverse should be open, trustless, and decentralized, or defined by tech giants aside, the matter of minors being allowed to access it will depend on which of these two versions we’re talking about.
The Metaverse will actually happen this decade.
If it is open, human innovation will flourish. If it is closed, we are digital serfs of sorts.
We 100,000 or so people right now are the front-line in this battle and we have to do it ourselves
— 6529 (@punk6529) August 22, 2021
Are metaverse parental controls even possible?
Parental controls are features included with streaming services, game consoles, mobile devices, and computers that allow parents to restrict what content their children can access and monitor activity. Both millennials and gen z are likely familiar with these tools, as they’ve been giving adult guardians peace of mind since 1994.
While parental controls are undoubtedly helpful in, say, keeping 13-year-olds from watching programs with mature ratings or accessing apps and websites meant for adults, they’re only as robust as the technology they seek to control. So, could parental controls be implemented in the impressively robust metaverse?
The answer is both yes and no. If we’re defining the metaverse as 3D virtual worlds, then yes, any VR headset or gaming computer can be restricted through factory features or third-party apps. Despite evolving technologies, this will likely always be the case with hardware. While the metaverse’s VR Murderville Strip Club (not a real thing) might not have an age restriction implemented, guardians can still set restrictions on kids’ hardware to prevent access.
On the other hand, what can a parent do about their kids accessing the aforementioned iteration of the metaverse as dictated by Web3? In this metaverse, “real” money is on the line as artists sell NFTs, collectors flip crypto-art for profit, and scammers are always out to shanghai one of the two (or both). Not to mention the often negative and potentially even toxic nature of some Web3 communities.
A few things must be taken into consideration in this case. First, it is possible that parents can restrict the websites their child visits — so no more OpenSea, Rarible, Magic Eden, Nifty Gateway, etc. That’s a partial fix, sure. Second, minors likely won’t have access to a bank account, so that means no cashing crypto in/out. Of course, setting a parental block on wallet services like Rainbow or MetaMask wouldn’t stop someone else from sending coins to the wallet of someone under 18.
But say none of this works. Kids are capable of getting around these parental controls. Maybe a minor has a software wallet downloaded and hidden on their phone. Or perhaps they’re accessing Somnium Space, The Sandbox, or Decentraland (all blockchain-powered and rated for all ages) at school? Or if they’re really skilled, maybe they’re just minting NFTs at a contract level or using swap/trading apps that circumvent the major marketplaces known to and restricted by parents? This might be an extreme case, but it goes far beyond taking away the child’s VR headset. And due to the decentralized and permissionless nature of the blockchain, there isn’t much a guardian could do.
Are age restrictions at odds with Web3 values?
If there were to be parental controls or age restrictions set in place in the decentralized metaverse, it would take some real finessing. Almost anyone can download a software wallet and use Wyre or MoonPay to purchase crypto with a credit card (perhaps not even their own). And because the goal of a significant portion of Web3 brands is mainstream adoption, the barriers of entry to the NFT space and the interoperable metaverse are only getting lower.
Say a company does come out with an app geared only towards kids or one that blocks computer and device access to all Web3 and NFT sites and platforms. That could be an easy win for parents. But there are still a couple of challenges. First, there’s the issue of nefarious characters potentially infiltrating a kid-approved metaverse. Further, it’s doubtful that a solution will emerge that would filter out only the explicit parts of Web3 (CryptoDickButts, skill games/gambling, nude NFTs, etc.) while allowing minors access to others. Achieving this would require significant human effort to identify the nature of the content and leverage subjective qualitative metrics. Considering the constantly growing NFT market and the wide variety of blockchains and hosting services associated with the metaverse, this feat seems quite unachievable for any Web3 startup.
Even if a service like this did exist, it could be considered contrary to the values and ethos of Web3. Because within the communities that use the blockchain as a stomping ground, one value remains a consistent commonality: the burning desire for decentralization. While in some cases, this may only pertain to decentralized finance, the idyllic builders of Web3 have long scoffed at the restrictive nature of the legacy financial, technological, and creative industries.
This is especially true considering the mixed bag of legal issues the blockchain has experienced over the past year. While the NFT space applauded the arrest of Sam Bankman-Fried following the gut-wrenching saga that was the fall of FTX, SEC probes into prominent projects and trusted crypto exchanges have left many in fear of impending, restrictive regulation.
So would parental controls, age restrictions, or some other form of heavy-handed content-blocking find a warm welcome in Web3? Not likely. Of course, this is based on the principles of the community that exists on the blockchain. That is to say that, for them, centralized power is bad. As for the moral question of needing to protect minors from the insurmountable “ick” that exists online and (in some forms) on-chain, considering the personal nature of the question, there may be no easy consensus reached by those in Web3.
More on the moral conundrum
The adverse side effects of social media on minors (especially children) have been chronicled many times over. Considering the depression, self-harm, and other mental health issues associated with platforms like Instagram, it makes sense that the metaverse could exacerbate these effects. However, this has yet to be studied, seen, or measured on a mass scale.
And even so, the potential benefits abound. The metaverse might provide a significant advantage for familial home life, from engaging learning opportunities to new avenues for building social skills and the potential for parents to bond with their children over the exciting possibilities of the future.
When all is said and done, the real conversation surrounding whether or not kids should be allowed into the metaverse is one of morals and ethics. As always, it’s up to the discretion of parents and guardians to decide what’s most fitting for their kids. Although, for the moment, the only solution to implementing parental guidelines in the metaverse seems to be “all or nothing,” perhaps the best course of action for keeping kids safe is through education. If the metaverse is inevitable, then teaching the next generation the skills they need to stay safe and flourish — such as how to steer clear of scams, knowing how the blockchain functions, and best practices for wallet safety — will be essential.
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