Social Virtual Reality: Privacy Risks, Opportunities, and Guidelines to Keep Young People Safe in Immersive Social Spaces

Social Virtual Reality: Privacy Risks, Opportunities, and Guidelines to Keep Young People Safe in Immersive Social Spaces

As an expert on social virtual reality (VR), I aim to create safer, more emotionally fulfilling experiences for children and teens on VR platforms. Many parents and educators may have heard of virtual reality but might be wondering, what is social VR, why does it matter, and how does it relate to kids and their safety?

Let’s define a few terms: when users have a VR headset on, they are completely engaged in an immersive (e.g., entirely 3D) online world, and when they don’t have on the VR headset, they are in the offline world. The scientific definition of social VR is 3D virtual spaces where multiple users can interact with one another through head-mounted displays. In lay terms, social VR can be described as putting on a VR headset and being able to interact with others as you normally would if you were not wearing a VR headset. For example, you could talk with someone as if they were actually in front of you in the offline world. 

In these VR spaces, embodied avatars represent people. Embodied means that when you move your arms, legs, or other body part, your social VR avatar will also move, just as you do! This is facilitated by various sensors, including controllers, tracking pucks, and head-mounted displays (i.e., the VR headset itself). This allows people to interpret social cues, such as standing too close, or non-verbal cues, such as nodding, while also allowing the avatar to walk, run, or even lie down. Users can customize these avatars to portray different races, genders, and aesthetics (glasses, hair color, etc.), which helps users express their identity and self-expression in the VR world. 

This is cool and interesting, but why does it matter? And how does it relate to children and teens? These spaces matter because they reflect early trends that exist in similar technology phenomena such as social media (e.g., Facebook, Myspace) and virtual worlds (e.g., Second Life, RuneScape, Club Penguin). These trends include cyberbullying, online harassment, privacy risks, lack of governance and accountability, and psychological harm. On a positive note, these spaces also allow for new forms of entertainment, learning, and most important, social connection, especially now in the context of COVID-19.

These spaces have caught the attention and significant investment of technology giants such as Facebook, Microsoft, and HTC. On these platforms, children and teens can participate in numerous activities, ranging from playing sports, learning via educational workshops, to exploring different identities. 

Learning opportunities include events such as VR language exchange, writing workshops, virtual homeschooling, software development instruction, and art curation and exploration. Play opportunities include sports (basketball, hockey, frisbee, ping-pong), VR-related sports (Rec Royale, Action Rush, Laser Tag, Rec War), quest and roleplaying activities, and experimenting with identities. These are just a few of the endless engagement opportunities and activities available on these platforms, and these spaces will continue to grow. 

Given this broad range of activities, social VR platforms have demonstrated a few risks to children and teens, such as exposure to age-inappropriate content, social harm, and psychological harm. For example, the realistic social VR platforms and interactions (via embodied avatars) can make it difficult for children and teens to differentiate between the offline world and the social VR world. Behaviors and interactions unique to social VR, such as talking to strangers (a norm in social VR), may carry over into the offline world, where they are not appropriate. Or users may start preferring to spend more time in social VR than the offline world.

In addition, these spaces have attracted interest not only from children and teens but also from adults, which, especially during the current global pandemic, can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, social VR enables rich social interactivity, allowing for engagement between different age groups, which is rare for many people due to restrictions of the pandemic. On the other hand, young people may face risks and challenges when interacting with adults, other children, and teens on these platforms, such as harassment, exposure to inappropriate behavior, or being more susceptible to exploitation by ill-intentioned adults. 

Moreover, the VR technology collects large amounts of biometric data such as body movements (e.g., gait, gestures) and voice information, which could be used to build profiles about users based on inferences derived from the data collected. Often children and teens automatically sign up to use the VR platforms without fully understanding these potential risks.

These guidelines, grounded in my research, foster children and teen’s safe engagement of social VR:  

Establish a regular practice of exiting VR. Because children and teens can have difficulty differentiating the offline and the social VR worlds, it’s helpful to have them acknowledge and practice how to exit social VR (e.g., taking off the headset) when appropriate. My research shows that it is not always evident to children and teens that they can physically exit social VR simply by taking the headset off. Harm could result, for example, if a child is being bullied and forgets that they can take the headset off. In addition, reducing the amount of VR screen time can help reduce nausea, dizziness, and other effects of VR. 

Experience social VR together with loved ones and friends. My research shows that parents and guardians participate openly in social VR platforms with their children. This helps children and teens interpret and better manage unwanted and unfamiliar interactions. It also seems to strengthen the relationship bond between parents/guardians and minors.

Educate minors about digital literacy. Continuous education about social VR and broader immersive technologies is vital for creating safe online social spaces for children and teens. These technologies are increasingly embedded in young people’s everyday social lives. The FTC page on privacy, identity, and online security has useful information on protecting kids online (Protecting Kids Online | FTC Consumer Information). 

Divine Maloney is a Ph.D. candidate in Human-Centered Computing at Clemson University who studies social virtual reality. To keep up to date with his research, you can find him at divinemaloney.com and on twitter as @vrisdivine.

Research: 

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