What is the Metaverse? Keeping Kids Safe in the Digital World

Stephen Balkam of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI)

The Metaverse is an immersive, virtual-reality space in which users are embodied in the experience as an avatar. The technology is growing in popularity, but what are the safety risks?

Stephen Balkam, Founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), joins host Tetiana Anderson to discuss what parents need to know to keep their children safe in the digital world.

Posted on:

September 29, 2022

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: The term metaverse refers to the next phase of the Internet, an immersive 3D platform with a profound sense of presence where you or your avatar are embodied in the experience. Virtual reality and augmented reality are two key technologies that make the metaverse work. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. The metaverse imagines a mixed reality where people interact in virtual environments. But what about security in this digital world? Joining me to talk all about it and the safety threats it poses for children is Stephen Balkam, founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute. Stephen, thanks for being here.

Balkam: Thanks for having me.

Anderson: So, Stephen, there's a real debate about the metaverse and its existence. So is it here? Is it coming? I mean, where are we in this evolutionary process?

Balkam: I mean, some would argue that we've been talking about this since the "Neuromancer" books back in the '80s, "Snow Crash" in the '90s. We've had virtual reality headsets for about 20 years. But there's a number of technologies that are coming together, and for that matter, certain companies that are stepping up to say, "We are going to build this next phase of the Internet."

Anderson: So what are the things that we can anticipate in the metaverse? I mean, give us some examples.

Balkam: Well, I mean, in some respects, we are already there. I mean, I've just come off a roller coaster ride in 3D, which was sickening, I've got to tell you. But also Meta's "Horizon Worlds" is a really interesting example of a common place where you and -- well, basically your avatar interacts with others verbally as well as visually. And it's quite an interesting experience to start communicating with someone else. Now, there are risks in this, there are harms in this, and there are rewards. So we have to be mindful of all three. And I would say that already I have felt intimidated and harassed in some situations, as well as been rewarded by very rich media experiences.

Anderson: So on that sentiment, this is, of course, a mixed-reality world. What are your safety concerns and what are you doing to make sure that this is a safe environment?

Balkam: Well, first of all, we absolutely have to know what the age limits are for these various different worlds and experiences and keep to them. I've been encountering kids way younger than 13 in Meta's "Horizon Worlds," for instance, and they definitely should not be there. So age appropriate content, good age gating to make sure that young children are kept off, and that there's age appropriate content, for that matter, for adults who are looking for that kind of thing. So we have to be able to segment those off. There's obvious questions about the kinds of content that you're going to encounter and the kinds of behavior. And I've just mentioned two already. I mean, the idea of cyberbullying in 3D is pretty terrifying, if you think about it. We already have some pretty bad examples of what's happened in the web 1.0 and 2.0 worlds. So we have to be very, very mindful of that. And I think content moderation is going to be key that folks who are running these platforms are able to intervene and that the users are able to report in a timely way.

Anderson: That's the work that you're doing, but what is it that users can do right now to really make sure that they're taking proper precautions in this space?

Balkam: Well, if you're a parent, you're going to definitely want to talk to your kids about what is acceptable and not acceptable in this space. I think you need to learn right up front what are the safety devices that you can use in-world, as it were, to quickly block someone, to report someone, or for that matter, literally just to take the headsets off so that you're not overwhelmed by some of the experiences.

Anderson: I know that people are going to want to know a lot more about this. So where can they go? What's your website?

Balkam: FOSI.org. So that's F-O-S-I.org, and we have tips and tools and resources in our good digital parenting section.

Anderson: Stephen Balkam of the Family Online Safety Institute, thank you so much for being here.

Balkam: Thanks again for having me.

Anderson: And thanks to you for joining us, as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, visit ComcastNewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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