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Growing Up in a Metaverse Featured Pattern: P1727 December 2021

Author: Rob Edmonds (Send us feedback.)

Metaverses could disrupt key parts of childhood development. New research is necessary to guide technology and product road maps.

Facebook (now Meta Platforms; Menlo Park, California) has attracted significant media coverage in recent months. Much of this coverage has centered on leaked internal documents—many of which came from whistleblower Frances Haugen—that reveal that the company regularly placed profit and other factors ahead of the welfare of the users of its platforms and failed to prioritize protecting teen users of its Instagram platform from the negative effects the platform can have on their mental health. Substantial coverage also centers on the company's name change and new focus on creating a metaverse. Some commentators see the name-change announcement as an attempt by the company to distract people from its current problems; however, if the company succeeds in fulfilling its new vision, the kinds of problems it currently has could become much worse.

Abstracts in this Pattern:

Much is unknown about how metaverses will affect children, adults, and society, but some signals suggest new problems ahead—particularly if use of immersive virtual reality (VR) becomes widespread. In 2016, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL; Lausanne, Switzerland) researchers found that children, unlike adults, were unable to use their torso to navigate in VR. Suspecting a potential problem, the EPFL researchers collaborated with Italian Institute of Technology (Genoa, Italy) researchers on a multiyear study about the impact of immersive VR on children's coordination. According to EPFL researcher Dr. Jenifer Miehlbradt, the study found "that immersive VR can disrupt the children's default coordination strategy, reweighting the various sensory inputs—vision, proprioception and vestibular inputs—in favor of vision." The study also showed that head‑torso coordination is typically still developing at age ten, not fully mature at age eight as researchers previously believed. Widespread use of VR could disrupt children's mental health, motor skills, and ability to function in the real world.

Development of the metaverse—or more likely, multiple metaverses—is uncertain. Even more uncertain is the role that Meta will play. Indeed, Microsoft (Redmond, Washington) and several other companies are already targeting the opportunity. And if metaverses create a smartphone-level disruption to digital life, their impacts on society could be profound. Near‑term research about the potential impacts of VR likely needs to guide technology and product road maps.