Amongst these online activities is the exploration of virtual realities (VR) which, according to the IET’s new research, two-thirds (66%) of children have now used and a quarter (25%) do so on a weekly basis. Proving this technology is here to stay, kids’ engagement with VR has grown by an incredible 320% in the past year alone (63% in 2023 vs. 15% in 20222), despite the lower age limits being 12 to 13 years old. Research conducted by the IET in 2022 estimates that Generation Alpha will spend more than a decade of their lives in VR.
In mid-March 2023, the UK Government’s Online Safety Bill progressed to the House of Lords, yet a range of potential harms unique to the use of metaverse and VR remain un-covered by legislation. To ensure this technology can be enjoyed safely, the IET has been campaigning to future-proof the Bill.
Last month, the IET drafted an amendment put forward by Lord Stevenson and Lord Clement-Jones that would oblige Ofcom to review how the Act applies to the Metaverse. The amendment led to an extensive debate in the House of Lords, concluding with the Government offering assurances that Ofcom’s periodic reviews will likely include users’ experiences of services such as the Metaverse.
The IET is continuing to push to ensure these reviews definitively include the metaverse and other emerging technologies - as well as calling on Ofcom to conduct a review on how the metaverse is governed.
Half (52%) of parents feel the ability to communicate online has brought their kids closer to their friends and 81% believe technology can be a great educational resource. However, this increased opportunity for connection also presents potential risks, as the digital realm opens up the potential dangers of communicating with strangers which can expose children’s vulnerabilities.
Whilst caregivers do have a better understanding of the metaverse than this time last year (45% in 2022 vs. 57% in 20232) there is still an evident disconnect between their own and their children’s knowledge of this virtual world. When asked how often they felt kids could be exposed to abuse in popular online virtual world platform, VRchat, a third (32%) answered rarely or not very often – but in reality, researchers recorded an abusive incident every 7 minutes over the course of 11 hours.3
Two thirds (64%) of parents feel that interacting with strangers online could desensitise their kids to real life dangers and three quarters (76%) believe that tighter laws need to be introduced to protect individuals accessing immersive online experiences.
When asked what type of legislation they feel should be introduced, 44% believe there should be a balanced approach where the government sets and enforces general guidelines for the metaverse and 30% feel the company who runs the VR platform should be responsible for justice if someone is assaulted by a stranger in the virtual world. Nearly a third (32%) would be in favour of tighter law and regulation with comprehensive rules and enforcement.
Another of the risks not covered by the Bill is the potentially dangerous use of ‘deep-fake’ imagery. According to the findings, half (49%) of parents have never heard of this type of content, demonstrating the ever-shifting online landscape that children are immersed in which lies beyond the knowledge of their caregivers.
Catherine Allen, Member of the IET’s Digital Policy Panel, and CEO of VR consultancy Limina Immersive, comments: “Today’s children are experiencing life in a way that is very different from that of their parents’ and caregivers’ youth. It is vital that those in positions of responsibility understand what children’s online daily life is like today – this includes parents, civil servants, and politicians.
“The UK Government’s Online Safety Bill puts a “duty of care” on large tech companies, social media websites, and other businesses operating in this space to remove harmful or illegal content and protect children. But it’s not enough.
“These clauses have been mainly designed around the ‘2D internet’ meaning there are a number of potential dangers unique to VR that the Bill does not currently cover. Despite the House of Lords compelling Ofcom to undertake periodic reviews to the Online Safety Bill there is still more to be done.
“Technologies such as VR offer so many benefits to both society and individual development, but this power the technology offers must be handled responsibly. Governments across the world have a duty to engage and take action where needed.”
Supporting the IET’s call to Government is child safety advocate and IET Honorary Fellow, Carol Vorderman M.A.(Cantab) MBE. Carol says: “Adoption of VR and metaverse based technology is continuing to build and will be unlikely to diminish. It’s a fast evolving and ever-changing world, which is why we are advocating for two reviews to the Bill - after 12 months and after five years.
“This technology offers incredible benefits and opportunities to society, but the potential risks are still not widely known or understood by regulators, users and caregivers and lack of safeguarding could open digital spaces up for more potential abuse.
“We hope this research also raises awareness amongst caregivers and provides them with the tools to discuss VR and the metaverse with their children. To empower them to play their role, alongside the OSB, in keeping it a safe and rewarding space for all that use it.”
Alex Taylor, Head of Policy at the IET, adds: “For the past 150 years, the IET has been committed to engineering a better world and supporting innovations that address the evolving needs of society.
“Our aim is to ensure everyone can safely enjoy technology, an important part of which is advocating for the metaverse to be an environment that people are able to use and experience in full without a threat to their safety.”
“It’s certainly a positive to see that our campaign has helped facilitate periodic Ofcom reviews into the Bill, however we are still pushing to make certain that this includes the metaverse and other emerging technologies. This will ensure the Bill keeps pace in the future as technology advances and that users continue to be sufficiently protected.”