The lights and shadows of virtual worlds and immersive realities

As part of the #MediaSmartOnline campaign, aiming to spotlight media literacy actions across Europe and running in cooperation with the network of Safer Internet Centres (SICs) and the Media & Learning Association (MLA) within the framework of the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) initiative, we are producing articles on a series of focus topics related to media literacy. This week, we’re diving into virtual worlds and immersive realitites.

Date 2024-03-26 Author BIK Team Section awareness Topic data privacy, gaming, media literacy/education, potentially harmful content Audience media specialist, parents and carers, research, policy and decision makers, teachers, educators and professionals
Visual identity of the MediaSmartOnline campaign featuring a VR headset

Some of the key technological innovations in recent years revolve around the development of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and extended reality (XR) applications emerging in all sectors of society: from leisure and learning, to business and health. Virtual realities have become increasingly popular among all users, and especially children and young people.

The benefits and downsides of virtual worlds

Their increase in popularity is understandable: users find themselves in a 360-degree space where they are completely surrounded and deeply submerged in the action. The first possible applications that come to mind are obviously related to gaming and entertainment, but there is an increasing number of social VR and XR spaces used for socialisation. 

Clear, tangible benefits also stem from applying such immersive technologies in education – the possibilities in terms visualisations, interactivity, repeated practice and experimentation in real life-like conditions have the potential to deeply transform the educational process as we now conceive it.

Another positive example is the use of these technologies in VR exposure therapy, where patients can make full use of the unique immersive quality of VR to slowly and safely expose themselves to a particular fear, or to tackle a particular negative or traumatic experience.

Despite the many benefits of AI and virtual worlds, there can be downsides too. As a wide variety of users, including both adults and children, can use and mix freely in these immersive experiences, there is always the risk of having inappropriate actors in the virtual or immersive space. Known online risks such as inappropriate behaviour, pornographic content, sextortion, CSAM and CSEM, and even cyberbullying that normally apply to the online sphere, can easily be translated and transferred to the virtual reality.

In addition, there is a growing concern that these same immersive properties may be used for manipulating users and amplifying misinformation and disinformation. The current information ecosystem has already shown to be a breeding ground for misinformation, with significant ramifications on society, democracy, and ultimately trust. The potential of immersive reality makes the risk for manipulative persuasion using misinformation more tangible and alarmin. Studies have shown that immersive realities can alter or shape attitudes and behaviours differently than non-immersive realities, due to the psychological impact of how users feel and experience them. You can find more information on the issue in this publication “Misinformation in Virtual Reality”.

Lastly, there are concerns about data protection too. A European Parliament briefing in 2022 noted that the special equipment needed to participate in the virtual worlds (e.g. VR headsets or glasses, AR headsets, etc.) and the fact that users access through avatars entails “the collection of massive amounts of data, including biometric data and data on the emotional responses of users…”. While many virtual worlds allow you to participate without special equipment, XR devices such as headsets will result in the collection of data, including biometric data.

We therefore need to learn the lessons from earlier technological advances and ensure that immersive realities are included in online safety conversations by policymakers, as well as tech companies, which need to keep safety in mind at the design stage, and respecting children’s rights online. 

Where does the EU stand on virtual worlds?

Recognising these developments and the potential of virtual worlds, the European Commission adopted a strategy on Web 4.0 and virtual worlds in July 2023. The strategy aims to ensure an open, secure, trustworthy, fair and inclusive digital environment for EU citizens, businesses and public administrations, and recognised that virtual worlds “will impact the way people live together, bringing both opportunities and risks that need to be addressed”. Both a factsheet giving an overview of the strategy, and a factsheet on how to develop desirable and fair virtual worlds are available.

Furthermore, the European strategy for a better internet for kids published in May 2022 complements the previous piece of work. Known as the BIK+ strategy, it aims to improve age-appropriate digital services, and to ensure that every child is protected, empowered, and respected online. The strategy clearly recognises that techological changes such as AI, virtual, augmented and extended reality “will raise new social and ethical challenges”. 


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, the European Safer Internet Centres provide a selection of information and resources on using virtual worlds here

Don’t miss out on the publication of the MediaSmartOnline campaign materials: check the campaign page regularly and follow the #MediaSmartOnline hashtag to see the campaign roll out on social media.

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