Keeping children and young people safe in virtual worlds

It’s Safer Internet Day; an occasion to reflect on the opportunities and challenges of being online. This annual day of celebration serves to promote a safer and better internet to both empower and protect children and young people in their digital lives. Some of the key developments in recent years revolve around artificial intelligence (AI), with 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. Here, we dive a bit deeper into some of the considerations… 

Date 2024-02-06 Author BIK Team Section awareness, sid Topic gaming, media literacy/education, potentially harmful content Audience media specialist, parents and carers, research, policy and decision makers, teachers, educators and professionals
A group of five children in a circle, one of them is wearing a white headset.

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 readingMetaverse 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: 

Austria 

Bulgaria 

Croatia 

Cyprus 

Denmark 

  • 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. 

Finland 

Not produced by the Finnish Safer Internet Centre, but also of relevance: 

France 

Germany  

Greece 

Hungary 

Ireland 

Italy 

Latvia 

Luxembourg 

Norway 

Portugal 

Slovenia 

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

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