Since Meta, aka Facebook, announced its plans for the metaverse, I've used the phrase "wild west" more than once to describe it. New investigations show, however, that it's going to be much worse than that, especially for our children.
A report this week for Channel 4’s Dispatches programme features an undercover journalist who is “disguised” in the metaverse as a 13-year-old. The report paints a despicable picture of malicious and extreme racial slurs, simulated sex acts and blatant discussion about sex acts, all purveyed in front of children.
Thirteen is supposedly the minimum age for creating a Facebook account and therefore accessing the metaverse - although proof-of-age procedures are minimal. But the Dispatches report suggests that no sane parent will want their 13-year-old anywhere near this metaverse.
The metaverse idea isn’t a new one. It’s been around for a while, though as its new brand name suggests, Meta (aka Facebook) would love to claim to have invented it. The metaverse idea essentially means a much more immersive version of the internet.
The metaverse has also been imagined as a unifying application of the entire internet, drawing together all things digital, from AI to cyber currencies, games, augmented reality and more.
Meta’s role in its version of the metaverse already stretches way beyond that of a communications platform provider. Meta will make big money not only from the collection and analysis of users’ data - and sale of same to marketers - but it will also profit from sales of its Oculus Quest 2 headset. This is currently one of the more prominent vehicles for engaging Meta’s alternative universe. Eight million have been sold so far.
For young people, this virtual reality multiverse will not be all high-tech bells and whistles. It will create real dangers - in the form of sexual abuse, financial scams and harmful social interactions.
Already, other reports are emerging of children being given access to virtual strip clubs and adults experiencing virtual sexual assault, including gang assault. Granted, the abusers and their victims exist only in avatar form and the assault is virtual. However, for the victims, this does little to reduce the psychological impact of the violent intent - and the feelings of vulnerability it inspires. Victims are aware that every avatar represents a human being who has chosen to behave in this way.
An added cause for concern is the fact that VR digital technologies are becoming increasingly haptic. Technologists are working to achieve fully haptic experiences online - that is, experiences that fool all of our senses, not just sight and sound. Researchers have been working for some time on ways to convert smell and taste into transmittable digital signals.
This will increase our ability to lose ourselves in online environments, but it will also boost the impact of negative experiences such as virtual sexual assault. The psychological impacts of this type of attack on young teens or children are incalculable. And many of these assaults result from people responding via simple dating apps. Imagine how many other forms of app might eventually be misused in this way.
Meta claims that it will protect the young in the alternative universe. But if BigTech can't protect young people from the many unscrupulous, bullying and even violent users of today's relatively static internet, how will they regulate behaviour in the untamed metaverse?
VR-based attacks leave a permanent psychological mark on the perpetrators, too. They potentially create a bias toward engaging in short-lived, egocentric and manipulative sexual encounters.
Studies on the long-term effects of frequent pornography use reveal that it often morphs into ever more risky forms of behaviour. These can include extra-marital affairs, seducing of work colleagues, making indecent phone calls, or something even more serious such as assault.
Users often report developing problems with intimacy. They feel they can’t enjoy sexual experiences because they’re addicted to the unreal, often infantilised versions of human interaction.
For most people, the first engagement with the multiverse will be innocent enough. It will feature what I call “sociable media”, the next iteration of social media.
This is where people use VR devices to place their 3D online avatars in virtual spaces, for meetings with avatars of friends or colleagues. The experience will be immersive, in a way the current internet is not - except, perhaps, among the gaming community.
Because the metaverse is so immersive, it will multiply the impact of the internet, perhaps exponentially, in both positive and negative ways.
On the benefits side of the ledger, this virtual multiverse will create new opportunities for mass collaboration, innovation and much more realistic levels of social connectivity online.
Already, major companies in sectors such as retail and entertainment see the positive potential here. They’re spending heavily to establish a presence in this network of online worlds. Today, the market size of the metaverse globally sits at around $47.69 billion. By 2028, that's expected to explode to $800 billion.
On the flip side, though, heavy engagement with the metaverse may increase our already significant problems with “absent presence” and “constant (or continuous) partial attention”. Both are making it harder for people to focus in an age of almost constant online distraction.
Related to this is the challenge of "shallow think". Studies show that, because of our constant multi-tasking online, we tend increasingly to think broad and shallow, rather than narrow and deep. We know a little about a lot rather than a lot about a little. We don’t specialise as much as we once did, yet specialists are still highly valued in every sector of society.
The metaverse may negatively impact already fraught social interactions, too. Facebook’s (at times unethical) internal research has shown that social media messages attract more eyeballs when they appear to provoke anger rather than empathy. People often prefer “hot” responses, to more calm & measured ones. Imagine how much greater that problem might be when we super-charge our internet engagement via the metaverse.
This all-encompassing virtual cosmos will also magnify our problems with data generation and privacy invasion.
It’s difficult to assign definite figures to such things, but some estimates have the value of the global data economy at around $3 trillion. In 2017, the European Commission estimated that by 2020 personal data would be worth eight per cent of the EU’s total GDP. Yet we, the sources of the data, derive very little by way of direct benefits from its use.
Sometimes we fall in love with cool new techs, without thinking about who controls the data they accrue and what they stand to gain from it. BigTech companies talk a lot about their altruistic - even utopian - motives. They tout their plans to provide cheap global broadband, via low-orbit satellites or high-altitude balloons, for example.
Some boast that by launching privately owned cyber-currencies they might free the world of poverty. Yet often their greatest motivation is still the acquisition of data, the currency of the surveillance economy.
For all that, perhaps our most pressing concern with the metaverse ought to be the impact it will have on the young. If recent revelations about sexual assault are anything to go by, the metaverse will see today's “dark web” seeping into our more mainstream internet experience.
Almost anything can be purchased in this hidden layer of the internet -from counterfeit passports and illicit weapons to drugs and human slaves. Terrorists regularly use it to share instructions on bomb-making and people traffickers use it to ply their hellish trade.
If you know how to access the dark web you’ll also find hardcore and violent porn, including so-called snuff movies - video recordings of real murders. If the metaverse is as poorly regulated as parts of the present internet, these activities may soon seep into the mainstream.
Given the profits such things generate for crime syndicates, the metaverse may provide children with access to virtual sexual activity which, for them, will quickly become all too real.
If that is the case, the metaverse might also turn some children into abusers of others. Online bullying and trolling provide examples of how rapidly negative behaviours can go viral among the young. And abusive behaviours all-too-quickly become addictive habits.
We find documented evidence of this among heavy gamblers and consumers of pornography. In the world of gambling, people whose behaviour is labelled "compulsive" gamble beyond their limit, because the excitement of gambling releases endorphins and enkephalins in the brain. These chemicals produce euphoric feelings.
Repetitive use of pornography can create similar sensations. Heavy users can become physiologically dependent on a chemical reaction. They want the sexual fantasy because they desire the high that comes with it. The more they indulge their habit, though, the higher the dose they need to achieve the same rush.
Knowing the destructive impact this kind of habit-formation has on adults, why would we remain silent when children are presented with something similar in terms of abusive behaviours online? Why should we sit back and watch our young ones dragged into a murky, dark-web-style pit of abuse, addiction and victimisation?
The metaverse - either as it is presented by Meta, or some other version thereof - may prove, in some ways, a boon to life on earth. However, we should learn lessons from our experience of the current internet.
It has increased global awareness of challenges to be overcome, such as global warming. It has boosted our capacity to stay in touch with those we care most about. It has given us the means to encourage dialogue among factions in society that might not have engaged otherwise. It has also, in some cases, made it easier to hold public figures, especially politicians, to account.
Yet it has also arguably increased tensions among people of different political persuasions. It has opened up highly fractious verbal battles - and sometimes physical ones - between opposing sides in the so-called “culture wars”. It has caused, or increased, mental health issues - including among those bullied on social media, for example.
Our pre-metaverse internet is probably both the tool most used to promote populist governments and the biggest culprit in promoting wokish divisions.
In the end, as with anything technological, the tools remain amoral. It is we, the moral agents, who decide whether they will be used in healthy or less desirable ways.
The young, however, must be protected from the worst uses of technology.
With that in mind, parents would be well advised to teach their children about at least some of the dangers of the metaverse. Perhaps with as much conviction as they would show when warning their children against drug-taking.
In the interests of demonstrating consistency, every parent might also consider deleting Facebook - and telling their children why they've done it. And every parent will do well to conduct a respectful but firm audit of their children’s internet habits. (Not an easy thing to do in practice, I know, but not much about good parenting is easy, is it?
Meta, aka Facebook, has proven time and again that it is either opposed to or incapable of self-regulation. It’s not likely to change of its own accord, not with the power of a metaverse behind it.
We citizens - and especially parents - need to vote with our virtual feet. And to urge our politicos to wake up to the dangers posed by a largely uncaring cultural behemoth!