Meta was warned not to let teens into Horizon Worlds, but it’s doing it anyway

Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As predicted a couple months ago, Meta has decided to let teenagers into its currently 18+ Horizon Worlds virtual-reality app, which is the flagship of the company’s quest to make the metaverse happen.

It was clear back then that this would be a controversial move, and that point was driven home last month when Democratic Sens. Ed Markey (Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) urged The Company Formerly Known as Facebook to change course. Markey even condemned the plan as “just another flagrant attempt to exploit young people for profit.”

Despite those protestations, Meta yesterday announced that 13- to 17-year-olds in the U.S. and Canada would in the coming weeks be able to use their Quest headsets to “play games like Arena Clash and Giant Mini Paddle Golf, enjoy concerts and live comedy events, connect with others from around the world, and express themselves as they create their own virtual experiences.”

The company is certainly going all out to reassure parents and its assorted critics that it’s taking a safety-first approach, with the bulk of the announcement comprising measures to keep things age-appropriate.

Teen’s profiles will be automatically set to private, their active statuses and Horizon Worlds locations won’t be broadcast, and strangers passing by the teens will only hear garbled voices—the strangers themselves will, from the teens’ perspective, only emit “quiet, friendly sounds”. Adult strangers won’t show up in the teens’ “people you might know” list. Worlds and events with mature content will keep the kids out. 

Meanwhile, parents will be able to monitor who their teen follows and is followed by, keep an eye on how much they use the app, and block them from using it. The teens will also be given “educational safety tips” within Worlds. Importantly, Meta said it will open Horizon Worlds access to teens gradually, so it can see how the age extension plays out.

All of which has convinced the senators that Mark Zuckerberg has actually got it right this…nah, just kidding. “Meta has a record of abject failure to protect young users,” thundered Markey on Twitter. “With today’s announcement, it once again chooses profits over privacy and opens the floodgates for teens to join a virtual reality platform rife with risks. I’m calling on Meta to reverse course and protect young users.”

Asked for a response, Meta declined to say anything beyond its Tuesday announcement.

It’s certainly true that Meta has a lousy record when it comes to teenagers. Instagram has disastrous effects on some teens, particularly girls. It was only around a year ago that the company rolled out parental controls for Instagram and the Quest VR headsets. And, as a coalition of child advocacy and digital rights groups wrote in a blistering letter to Zuck last week, the kids that have already been wandering around Horizon Worlds despite its age limit “are routinely exposed to harassment and abuse—including sexually explicit insults and racist, misogynistic, and homophobic harassment—and other offensive content.”

But there’s also a wider trend here of society facing a new technology, seeing a threat plus a bunch of unanswered questions, and moving quickly to protect the young. When Italy’s privacy watchdog banned ChatGPT, one of its complaints was regarding OpenAI’s failure to verify that its users cleared its age limit of 13—the regulator confirmed last week that this was one of several preconditions to ChatGPT being allowed to resume Italian service. 

Maybe Meta really can keep all kids safe in Horizon Worlds—though given some teenagers’ propensity to lie about their age, and some parents’ disinterest in applying parental controls, I have my doubts. Maybe OpenAI can ensure that no under-13 Italians are exposed to inappropriate answers. But maybe they can’t. There’s every reason for caution, and the outrage that greeted Meta’s announcement this week was entirely predictable.

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David Meyer

Data Sheet’s daily news section was written and curated by Andrea Guzman. 


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