The future is now
Virtual reality environments are understandably popular with children and young people. Many talk about “losing themselves” in a game and we refer to these experiences as immersive. Instead of simply looking at a screen, users are in a 360-degree space where they are completely surrounded and deeply submerged in the action.
As well as games, there are also an increasing number of social XR spaces where users are just able to be with others and socialise.
There are also clear benefits to be gained from using immersive technology in education. For example, a UNESCO study on technology in education found that “augmented, mixed or virtual reality are being used as experiential learning tools, providing attractive visualisations, interactivity and opportunities for repeated practice in life-like conditions”.
Recognising these developments and the potential of the technology, in July 2023, the European Commission adopted a strategy on Web 4.0 and virtual worlds. The aim is to “steer the next technological transition and ensure an open, secure, trustworthy, fair and inclusive digital environment for EU citizens and business and public administrations”.
An EC factsheet outlines the key provisions of the strategy across four pillars, along with key recommendations put forward by a European Citizen’s Panel on virtual worlds outlining their expectations for the future, along with principles and actions to ensure that virtual worlds in the EU are fair and citizen-friendly.
Further building on this work, the EC is currently developing a virtual worlds toolbox for the general public. This toolbox is one of the actions mentioned in the strategy on Web4.0 and virtual worlds and aims to address the recommendation made by the Citizen Panel on the topic.
Complementing this work is the European strategy for a better internet for kids (published May 2022). Known as the BIK+ strategy, its aim is to improve age-appropriate digital services and to ensure that every child is protected, empowered, and respected online. The strategy recognises that “in the near future, AI, virtual, augmented and extended reality, the internet of things, cryptocurrency, and other technological changes impacting children will raise new social and ethical challenges”. That future has arrived and so actions aimed at safeguarding users in these virtual environments need to be top of mind for a range of stakeholders.
The importance of safety by design
Despite the many benefits of AI and virtual worlds, there can be downsides too. Adults and children often have the ability to mix freely within these virtual spaces and, just as in the real world, there is always the potential for bad actors to behave inappropriately.
Accordingly, there have been some disturbing media headlines (such as one from the BBC reading “Metaverse app allows kids into virtual strip clubs”). While such headlines report on the extreme, clearly – as with other online spaces and experiences – it’s important that safety is considered at the design stage rather than as an afterthought.
There are concerns about data too. A European Parliament briefing in 2022 noted that “people will participate in the metaverse through avatars, using special equipment, such as VR headsets or similar devices, enabling an immersive experience. This entails the collection of massive amounts of data, including biometric data and data on the emotional responses of users…”. While this is of concern for all users, children’s data, especially, needs to be given special attention under the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation).
All this said, like most online spaces, there are tools designed to provide children and young people with a safer and more age-appropriate experience in virtual reality environments. For example, some platforms allow parents to set daily time limits for their children as well as to lock various safety features. An ever-expanding range of XR headsets are emerging, potentially meaning that greater numbers of children and young people will soon be exploring these immersive environments.
We therefore need to learn the lessons from earlier technological advances and ensure that online safety conversations include these increasingly popular spaces. In parallel, tech companies need to think about safety at the design stage, respecting children’s rights, and listening to their concerns and acting on them.
Resources to support you
Here at Better Internet for Kids (BIK), our mission is to ensure that children and young people have the best experience online. Within this framework, European Safer Internet Centres provide a wealth of information and resources to support children and parents when they go online. Check out a selection on using virtual worlds – and associated issues – here:
- The positive side of video games (including XR environments).
- Article on generative artificial intelligence (AI) –what it is, what it can be used for, and the possible risks.
- Podcast about videogames – a brief overview of the most important information about videogames, what deviant behaviours are common in them and how young people react to them.
- Podcast about information disorder – brief overview of the most important information about what information disorder is, what our role is in its spread and how to defend against it.
- Use of artificial intelligence (AI) in education – an article that refers to the use of artificial intelligence for the purposes of completing school assignments. The article is focused on the use of ChatGPT, analysing how it can be useful in education.
- Game and platform guides for adults – a series of guides providing insight into popular video games Fortnite, Call of Duty and Minecraft.
- Children’s play habits – a guide for parents about gaming, providing insight into the positive elements of gaming as well as the things parents should be aware of and pay attention to.
- Explore the phenomenon: Metaverse
- The Game Educator's Handbook (revised international edition) – an aid for all types of game educators providing expert information on gaming and related phenomena.
Not produced by the Finnish Safer Internet Centre, but also of relevance:
- What a youth worker should know about VR and AR
- Planning the use of augmented and virtual reality for vocational education and training: A practical guide.
- The resources: Free digital tools to raise awareness of good digital uses – lots of resources on video games, some of which make reference to virtual environments.
- Video games: Advice and resources for informed and safe video game playing as a family.
- Gaming club in the Makerspace – a resource where young people can test games and join in a virtual reality world.
- Make, create and play: A handbook on media education between creativity and play – includes information on how virtual reality and augmented reality influence the gaming worlds.
- SCROLLER magazine – a magazine resource which often contains references to XR environments, headsets, and similar.
- Survey of youngsters (from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland, Sweden and Norway) about their experience and attitude to online gaming
- Guide for parents: Children and online gaming
- Advice for parents if a child is playing online games
- Advice for parents if a child is watching videos of gamer-influencers
Discover more resources from the European network of Safer Internet Centres – on a wide range of topics, in a wide range of languages – in the Better Internet for Kids resource gallery.
Find out more about the work of your national Safer Internet Centre, including awareness raising, helpline, hotline and youth participation services.
Learn more about the global celebration of Safer Internet Day.