#1057: What Parents Should Know about Social VR, Understanding Social VR Harassment, & Parental Guidance for the Metaverse with Lance G. Powell, Jr.

There are a lot of unsupervised children in different social VR applications, and hopefully this interview with Lance G. Powell, Jr. about his article Parental Guide for the Metaverse can be a part of helping inform parents about some best practices for navigating virtual reality with your child.

Many social VR spaces are still largely unmoderated, which means that there’s lots of harassment, trolling, and intolerant behaviors happening. Powell wrote his Master’s Thesis on A Framework for Understanding and Detecting Harassment in Social VR, where he started to map out signatures of harassing and abusive behaviors including “sounds related to sexual activity, presence of sexual or hate-related imagery, incitation to violence, large quantity and repetition of vulgar language, large variety of taboo or controversial topics, proximity of vulgar language and behavior to login time, physically mimicking sexual activity, and suprasegmental features of speech.”

Parental supervision in VR is a hot topic right now, and Powell wrote up a list of 10 points to help parents start to navigate the risks within social VR applications.

  1. Don’t Talk to Strangers (if you’re under 13)
  2. Don’t Go to Other People’s Private Worlds [of people you don’t know]
  3. Learn the Safety Tools
  4. Record the Incident
  5. Only Go to Private Worlds
  6. Understand the Social Norms of a World / Environment
  7. Be Cautious about How You Report Harassment
  8. Avoid Conflict Avoidance
  9. Plot Twist — Your Kid Might Be Part of the Problem
  10. Play Half+Half on Quest

I had an extended discussion with Powell on his list in this podcast interview, and overall I believe this a great start in helping to have a safe and enjoyable experience in social VR spaces. I don’t agree with all of his points or perspectives, and we deliberate those within our extended discussion.

For parents, one of the most important things to know is that the minimum age for using VR is 13 years old. According to the Oculus Quest Terms of Service

Oculus Products are intended solely for users who are 13 or older. Any registration for, or use of, Oculus Products by anyone under the age of 13 is unauthorized, unlicensed and in violation of these Oculus Terms. You certify that you are of the legal age of majority in the jurisdiction in which you reside or, if you are between the ages of 13 and the legal age of majority, that you are using the Oculus Products with the supervision of your parent or legal guardian who agrees to be bound by the Terms, and that you have reviewed the Terms with your parent or guardian so that you both understand all of your rights and obligations.
[Italics added for emphasis]

There’s a clause in there that 13-18 year old teenagers should be “using the Oculus Products with the supervision of your parent or legal guardian.” This type of parental supervision is not currently happening, and there’s no way for Meta to monitor or enforce this. Age verification has been a hot topic in the VR community, and Andrew Bosworth (aka “Boz”) responded to his Instagram 2/10/22 AMA (mirrored here) to the question “How are you going to handle the “kids in VR” problem long term? Age Verification?”

“You know, we’ve been very clear, [VR] is a product that’s for people who are 13+, and that parents should be monitoring even children ages 13+ and their usage, which you can do through casting and streaming on the app to a phone or to the TV. All of our content is rated. All of our developers have to follow our content guidelines and policies. This is an issue that parents have to take seriously. I don’t know of any system that is going to verify ages that can’t be circumvented if you have unsupervised youth. Listen, I’m a parent myself. I understand the importance of this stuff. I really do. It’s important to me too on a personal level. But that’s why I’ve got to take responsibility for it myself. So, you know, we have the systems and policies in place. We’re very clear that is a product for 13+, and that parents should be monitoring kids between ages 13 to 18 for their usage.”

Powell’s reaction to Boz’s statement is that RecRoom has implemented junior accounts for children 12 and younger, and that there are ways to start to mitigate this by having accounts run credit card transactions to verify their age. Boz is correct in that there are not perfect solutions that will always prevent circumvention. But even Meta’s Horizon Worlds is alleged only available for “people 18 years or older in the US and Canada,” and I say allegedly here because Boz is saying that Meta has no pragmatic way of enforcing this 18+ requirement, and is instead putting the burden onto parents to monitor everything that their children 13-18 do within virtual reality. Powell says that it’s probably unrealistic and unreasonable to watch everything your teenagers are doing in VR, but that at least if they’re in the same room with you then you can start to hear what they’re saying and what’s happening.

This is XR Engineer Avi Bar-Zeev’s reaction to Boz’s take on age verification, “This is BS. Apple implements TouchID, FaceID, ScreenTime, age checks to make their phones safer. He goes on to say, “We’re expected to believe that a company built on identifying us across the entire World Wide Web (even when we delete our accounts!) based on cookies, trackers and tiny unique differences in our phone sensor data can’t tell kids from registered adults?”

There are other privacy implications for Meta always knowing who is using a headset, but there’s certainly ways in which this type of biometric identifying information could be used to help protect children and prevent the widespread use of underaged kids within VR. But for the moment, Meta is passing the buck to parents to responsibly monitor their children. That isn’t currently happening at scale, many VR applications are flooded with kids younger than 13 and teenagers.

The minimum age for VR is 13 years old also in part due to Meta’s required compliance for the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA) in the United States. Companies are not allowed to collect data on children less than 13 years old, & Meta has not announced any plans for putting in safeguards for children 12 or younger to come within COPPA compliance.

Another reason for the 13+ requirement is probably because a lot of the social VR applications have an Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) minimum rating of Teen (i.e. 13+), and some apps like VRChat and Meta’s Horizon Worlds should probably have an ESRB rating of Adult and 18+.

RecRoom actually has an ESRB rating of 10+, and they do have junior accounts available for children who are 12 years old or younger, which restricts who they speak with. But it’s also actually not recommended that children less than 13 should be using VR at all yet, as the minimum age for the Quest is 13+. The content of RecRoom is technically 10+ as you can access it via 2D platforms like XBox, PlayStation, iOS, and Android, but the VR version should probably be rated Teen to make this more clear to parents. Especially because the visual systems of kids less than 13 may still be developing and the long-term effects of the Vergence Accommodation Conflict are currently unknown for how it could impact their vision. Early studies indicate that there are potentially more risks than harms for children, and so for a variety of these reasons, 13 years old is the recommended minimum age for using VR.

There are also other social VR platforms like VRChat where there are other risks. The BBC published an article on February 23rd, 2022 titled “Metaverse app allows kids into virtual strip clubs” where they reported that Andy Burrows from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children said that children are “being exposed to entirely inappropriate, really incredibly harmful experiences” within VRChat. The BBC reports that a “researcher posing as a 13-year-old girl witnessed grooming, sexual material, racist insults & a rape threat in the virtual-reality world.” There are a lot of sexual harassment, grooming, and generally toxic trolling behaviors that are happening with public instances of VRChat, which Powell’s list has some ways to mitigate these risks. However, there are many people within the VRChat community who are suggesting that perhaps it is time for VRChat to become an 18+ application as there are a lot of things happening within the platform that make it not suitable for teenage kids.

You can check out the comments and Quote Tweet comments on this Tweet for more discussion on that front.

There probably is some responsibility left to platforms like VRChat to enforce their Terms of Service and Community Guidelines via moderation. In looking at their policies, VRChat’s Terms of Service says that users should not “post, upload, or distribute any User Content or other content that is unlawful, defamatory, libelous, inaccurate, or that a reasonable person could deem to be objectionable, profane, indecent, pornographic, harassing, threatening, embarrassing, hateful, or otherwise inappropriate.” This is mostly around avatars and worlds that are being uploaded, which does have different layers of having things live within community labs before it is made more widely available through search.

The harder thing to moderate is violating behaviors, especially because there are up to 90,000 concurrent users within VRChat at peak hours, which makes it extremely difficult to have any sort of moderation system to prevent violating behaviors from their Terms of Service to “use the Platform in any manner to harass, abuse, stalk, threaten, defame, or otherwise infringe or violate the rights of any other party.” The community guidelines in VRChat do not accept intolerance such as “Hate speech, including language, symbols, and actions” nor “Discrimination towards spiritual beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, sexual identity, disability, and/or any other personally identifying factors.” They also do no permit harassment of “repeatedly approaching an individual with the intent to disturb or upset” or “going through other individuals and channels such as social media to continue to harass an individual after being blocked.” But again, because these violating behaviors occur on an individual basis in real-time on the platform, then it is difficult to use automated technologies to police individual behaviors. In order to enforce these, then you have to use the built-in safety tools for blocking or reporting violating behaviors.

All of this reiterates the importance of parental oversight if your teenage is spending times on these social VR platforms.

But what makes VRChat different than other social VR platforms is that they do have some tolerance for sexually explicit behaviors on private instances. Public instances are open for anyone from the public to enter, and private instances are restricted to the getting access bases upon knowing someone who is within that instance, which is like being metaphorically behind closed doors within someone’s private residence.

In terms of inappropriate conduct section of VRChat’s community guidelines, VRChat does not allow any type of pornography or nudity anywhere on their platform either within public or private instances. However, they also say that they do not allow “live-streaming, advertising or publicly sharing content that is sexually explicit in nature or simulates sex acts is not permitted.” Notice the “publicly sharing” of sexually explicit behaviors clause here. This implies that sexually explicit content and the simulation of sex acts are only not permitted on the platform if it’s publicly livestreamed, advertised, or publicly shared. This means that these things are okay as long as it is within a private instance.

The implication here is that sexually explicit behavior is okay as long as it happens between consenting adults on private instances. The issue here is that the minimum age for using VRChat is 13 years old, and because there’s no age verification, then there’s no guarantee for the users of VRChat who are engaging in sexually explicit behavior on private instances is actually between consenting adults. The presence of sexual predators and sexual grooming is a whole other issue that the BBC article pointing out as the researcher went undercover as a 13 year old and personally experience sexual grooming.

Part of VRChat’s Terms of Service is that teenagers from 13-18 need to get consent from their parents, but it is unclear how the platform is currently enforcing this. Here’s what their Terms of Service says,

2. Eligibility
You must be at least 13 years of age to use the Platform. By agreeing to this TOU, you represent and warrant to us that: (a) you are at least 13 years of age; (b) you have not previously been suspended or removed from the Platform; and (c) your registration and your use of the Platform complies with all applicable laws and regulations. If you are at least 13 but are under the age of 18, you may only use the Platform with your parent’s or guardian’s consent and your parent or guardian must provide consent after having read this TOU.

There’s an implication here that parents need to be consenting to their teenager being on VRChat, and according to Meta’s Boz they should also be more directly supervising their activities in VR. Because there doesn’t seem to be much moderation happening on VRChat in private instances at all, then it is pretty much the Wild West when it comes to what may be happening behind closed doors on their platform, especially when it comes to sexually explicit activity.

It was unclear from the BBC article whether or not they were on a public or private instance, but either way it shows the possibility of teenagers hanging out in a virtual strip club. It is for this reason that a lot of VRChat users who do engage in 18+ behaviors on the platform are in favor of increasing the minimum age for VRChat from 13 years old to 18 years old. It is for this reason, that Powell, myself, and others have a hard time recommending to parents that they should be letting their teenage hang out on VRChat unsupervised, and potentially not even be let onto VRChat at all.

Boz said that all of the content on their platform is rated, and VRChat is currently rated by the ESRB as “Teen.”

However, as the BBC article points out, a researcher posing as a 13-year old was using VRChat and reports, “The BBC News researcher – using an app with a minimum age rating of 13 – visited virtual-reality rooms where avatars were simulating sex. She was shown sex toys and condoms, and approached by numerous adult men.” Either VRChat needs better moderation strategies for violating content, or their minimum age by the ESRB needs to increased to Adult (18+). ESRB-ratings

The ESRB rating and Terms of Service for Meta’s Horizon Worlds is sending mixed messages for what the minimum age requirement is. There’s a blog post where Meta declares that the age requirement for Horizon Worlds is 18+, but yet a minimum age is not listed part of their Horizon Worlds Terms of Service, and the ESRB rating of Horizon worlds is rated as Teen (13+).

Figuring out how to deal with children in VR is a hot topic right now because there are a lot of unregulated and unmoderated risks without any proper age verification systems, and the ESRB ratings don’t seem to be reflecting the current recommended practices. There are terms of service obligations and community guidelines, but again there seems to be a different enforcement philosophy between public vs private instances on VRChat, and there’s not a robust enough automated systems or manual oversight to be able to monitor and enforce their guidelines. So I can’t recommend VRChat as being a safe space for children and teenagers to hang out in, and it’s probably best to be avoided, which re-emphasizes the need for proper parental supervision.

That all said, it is also possible to have enjoyable experiences on social VR platforms with teenagers with some parental supervision and following some of Powell’s Parental Guide for the Metaverse that should be helpful for not only the parents, but also the teenagers if they follow some of the best practices listed in this document. And listen into our discussion, which breaks it down even more and other things to consider as your children explore what’s possible within virtual reality.


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Music: Fatality