Excluding Teenagers From Online Services Stifles the Development of the Metaverse
In recent weeks, lawmakers have introduced legislation to ban or heavily restrict teenagers’ use of social media. Protecting teens and children online is a laudable goal and something policymakers should indeed worry about. But if lawmakers enact these bills, they will not keep teenagers safe from online harm, and they will severely stifle the development of the metaverse—an emerging immersive digital space that offers new opportunities for learning, working, and socializing.
Both state and federal legislators have considered laws to limit teenagers online. Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) proposed a bill to ban social media use by minors under 16 years old. In Utah, lawmakers passed bills SB 152 and HB 311, which prohibit minors from using social media without their parents’ authorization and hold social media platforms liable for harm that kids experience on these platforms, respectively. In Louisiana, legislators passed a law earlier this year that would require websites to verify the ages of all users that host “material harmful to children.”
Restricting access to social media based on a user’s age introduces various challenges. If platforms enact an age verification system, users typically must submit images of a government-issued ID for platforms to store and verify. Providing this information to platforms creates privacy and cybersecurity risks. Ironically, Utah has banned TikTok from all state-owned devices, with its governor alleging that “China’s access to data collected by TikTok presents a threat to our cybersecurity.” Yet Utah’s age-gating bills would compel users to upload their government IDs to the social media site.
Additionally, age verification requirements could spark conflicts with different state data privacy laws. For example, online safety laws would likely obligate social media platforms to verify that users are not using virtual private networks (VPN) to appear to be out-of-state and not subject to the age verification requirements. But if these platforms require VPN users to verify their location before accessing their service, they would be violating state privacy laws that prohibit platforms from limiting access to users who do not share their personal information.
Additional practical challenges will likely arise if policymakers apply age verification systems in the metaverse. Unlike mobile phones and personal computers, virtual reality devices are still in the early stages of adoption. Typically, there is a single device per household, and multiple household members share these devices. A common problem with shared devices is that if appropriate controls are not set, all household members, regardless of age, tend to use the primary account linked to the device, which is usually an adult account, instead of an account that accurately reflects the user’s age. Account sharing is a common issue for virtual reality platforms, as platforms prohibit the practice in their terms of service but lack the tools to enforce them.
Aside from the practical and legal challenges of enforcing age verification mandates, restricting teenagers from online platforms will likely harm the development of the metaverse. Teenagers and young adults have been the creative force behind the growth of different social media and content platforms, as they played a pivotal role in the content creation that propelled social media platforms to mainstream popularity. A 2010 study by Pew highlighted that teens were sharing and producing more self-created content than adults in 2006 and 2009. A more recent example is the fast growth of the short-video platform TikTok, which is widely popular among young adults and teenagers. Estimates indicate that while more than half of content creators on the platform are young adults (18-24 years old), one out of four TikTok users are teenagers (10-17 years old), making them the most prominent demographic on the platform. Current metaverse or metaverse-adjacent platforms like VRChat, Fortnite, Minecraft, or Roblox have also shown that younger users are the most interested in virtual socialization and the most likely to jump into the metaverse.
As the metaverse evolves and becomes a more important medium for socialization, digital literacy will become an even more valuable skill. But suppose teenagers are denied access to online services until they turn 16 or 18. In that case, they will likely have lower digital literacy rates due to a lack of prior exposure to online behavior and social norms. Additionally, it would remove teenagers from services that provide them a way to build and maintain friendships and that teenagers ultimately do not deem harmful.
Unfortunately, metaverse platforms have faced resistance from lawmakers when they open up their platforms to younger users. For example, Representatives Ken Buck (R-CO) and David Cicilline (D-RI) recently published a letter criticizing Meta’s plans to open the Horizon World platform to users 13 and up. Restricting the metaverse to adults would cut teenagers off from the many entertainment and educational opportunities that younger users would arguably benefit from the most.
Instead of age-gating, policymakers should prioritize harm reduction tools that aim to prevent or ameliorate any potential harm teenagers might find online. Representatives Buck and Cicilline offer some helpful questions at the end of their letter, asking Meta about the trust and safety measures it will enact as it starts receiving teenagers on its platforms. Senator Hawley’s proposal to authorize a federal study on the impact of social media could potentially cover research gaps if re-focused on researching the effects of harmful content. A Florida Senate proposal to include social media literacy courses in K–12 education could provide teenage users with tools to mitigate some of these social media harms. As metaverse platforms are primarily built on the foundations and norms established in “2D” social media, addressing these issues in social media platforms will also positively impact users of metaverse platforms. These initiatives would provide a strong complement to the increasing amount of safety tools that platforms are rolling out to protect underage users.
Proposals to keep teenagers off social media run the risk of stifling the development of the metaverse. Policymakers should instead assume teenagers will be present on these platforms and work with platforms to give users the tools to create a safe online experience.