New Report Urges Congress to Require a “Child Flag” System to Screen Age-Restricted Content on AR/VR Devices and Platforms
WASHINGTON—Teenagers are among the most enthusiastic early adopters of augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) devices and platforms, but their relative immaturity and naivete can make them more susceptible to safety threats than adults. To address this issue, a new report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) calls on Congress to require that device makers incorporate a “child flag” feature into their operating systems’ parental controls and require apps and websites to check for that signal before serving age-restricted content.
“Policymakers’ current approach to the challenge of creating safe online experiences for teens have mostly focused on ID-based age-verification mandates, but that is unlikely to make teens safe and would probably make the online experience worse overall for both teens and adults,” said Juan Londoño, a policy analyst at ITIF, who authored the report. “Instead of requiring age verification for online services, Congress should require device makers and platforms hosting age-restricted content to establish a ‘child flag’ system—so everyone is assumed to be an adult unless they are marked as a child.”
Following an earlier report in which ITIF examined user safety issues for adults, ITIF’s new report examines the unique context of AR/VR use for teens. The new report reviews the state of immersive technology adoption, sociological factors for teens, and the role of parents. It then catalogs types of safety threats for all users of AR/VR technology and the specific threats for teens—from sexual predation to cyberbullying and harassment, exposure to inappropriate content, and other potential harms.
The new report concludes that creating a safe experience for teen users of AR/VR technology is a complex challenge due to factors shaping teens’ decision-making, risk aversion, and relationship with tech. It further concludes that policymakers’ current approach to promoting safe user experiences—mostly focusing on establishing ID-based age-verification mandates—is unlikely to address the issue effectively and could create other problems.
Therefore, the report outlines several recommendations for policymakers:
- Legislators should not require age verification for online services. Despite their good intentions, these bills could significantly erode users’ privacy, stifle free speech, and deter the development of the metaverse and AR/VR technology at large.
- Congress should require that device makers and online platforms hosting age-restricted content establish a “child flag” system. Regulations should look to establish a middle ground where platforms assume everyone is an adult unless they’ve been marked as a child. Websites and apps that deliver age-restricted content could then check whether a device has received the tag and, if called for, block a user from seeing the content.
- Policymakers should direct educators to add AR/VR literacy to digital literacy curricula. Public schools can help teens understand how to engage in safe online behaviors, identify common dangers online, and better understand the dynamics and social norms of the online world.
“Policymakers should prioritize policy interventions that empower users,” said Londoño. “Having an opt-in system built into a device’s operating system would give parents a consistent, trustworthy way to block exposure to inappropriate content. Apps and websites would be able to maintain guardrails for their underage users, and teens would still be able enjoy the benefits of online interaction in a safe manner.”
The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) is an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan research and educational institute focusing on the intersection of technological innovation and public policy. Recognized by its peers in the think tank community as the global center of excellence for science and technology policy, ITIF’s mission is to formulate and promote policy solutions that accelerate innovation and boost productivity to spur growth, opportunity, and progress.