Published on: 03/03/2023
Senate Democrats urge Meta to stop plans to market metaverse to teens
Two Senate Democrats have urged Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg to halt plans to release the Horizon Worlds metaverse, a mobile application aimed at teenagers aged 13 to 17.
Senators Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Ed Markey of Massachusetts cited the company’s poor history with child protection regulations in their concern for Meta’s project plans. Meta plans to open up Horizon to teenagers as soon as this month.
“As our constituents grow increasingly concerned about the effects of online platforms and social media apps on teens’ well-being, your plans to imminently pull these young people into an under-researched, potentially dangerous virtual realm with consequences for their physical and mental health is unacceptable,” Senators Markey and Blumenthal said in their letter.
“Any strategy to invite young users into a digital space rife with potential harms should not be driven by a goal to maximize profit.”
While Meta has yet to comment on the letter, the company announced parental supervision tools for Quest headset owners last June. These tools allow adult guardians to view, approve and block applications on their children’s behalf.
Company spokespeople have also previously mentioned that Meta’s Quest headsets were made with teenagers as young as 13 in mind, insisting that Meta aims to deliver a great experience for young adults and teenagers in its virtual reality setting.
Concerns for safety
Even before their current pivot in the audience for Horizon, the Senate has brought up concerns regarding Meta’s targeting. Senators Markey and Blumenthal pointed to past internal errors within Meta’s supposedly child-friendly Messenger Kids, which allowed children to interact with strangers. Meta’s spokespeople later claimed that the error only applied to a few users.
In the past, lawmakers have also riled against Meta’s plans to expand their popular social media service, Instagram, for children. Senators cited internal research that discovered the application’s harmful effects on teenage girls in 2021. The backlash forced Meta to suspend their plans to release Instagram for kids.
“With a documented track record of failure to protect children and teens, Meta has lost parents’, pediatricians’, policymakers’, and the public’s trust,” Senators Markey and Blumenthal said in their letter.
Data collection was also a significant concern in the senator’s letter. Horizon and relevant Meta Quest devices collect data on face and eye movement, important identification tools that may be misused in the future.
Virtual reality may also potentially expose teenagers to more visceral abusive behavior online, including verbal or sexual harassment from other metaverse users.
Meta spokespeople remarked that face and eye tracking currently only exist on Quest Pro devices, which cost over $1,500. These devices also allegedly implement various protections to avoid violations against their users’ privacy.
Meta’s recent struggles in building its user base have largely affected its current plans. Last year, leaked internal documents showed that Horizon struggled to maintain over 200,000 active users.
Beyond expanding its audience to younger generations, the company also plans to implement a two-dimensional version of Horizon. This version will be available on PC and mobile and will be released sometime in 2023.