Public letter urges Mark Zuckerberg not to allow teens into Meta’s Horizon Worlds
The letter accuses Meta of targeting a younger audience in an effort to meet its profit goals. “But what may be good for your bottom line may be incredibly harmful to young people,” the authors of the letter write.
Meta aims to boost the user-base of Horizon Worlds to at least 1m by the end of 2023. / Adobe Stock
A new public letter is imploring Meta founder and chief exec Mark Zuckerberg to halt the company’s plans to allow teenagers into its virtual reality (VR) platform Horizon Worlds until it can demonstrate through independent research that the tech doesn’t pose significant danger to younger users.
“Considering the well-documented negative impacts of 2D social media on young people, Meta must wait for more peer-reviewed research on the potential risks of the metaverse to be certain that children and teens would be safe in the immersive experience” of VR, the authors write in the letter.
Published this morning, the letter was spearheaded by children's digital safety nonprofit Fairplay, the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) and the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH). It was signed by a total of 36 organizations and 37 individuals, including former US congressman and House majority leader Richard Gephardt and the social psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt.
In February, The Wall Street Journal reported that Meta was planning on making Horizon Worlds available to users between the ages of 13 and 17. (Horizon Worlds can currently only be accessed by users aged 18 and older, but Meta’s Quest VR headsets have a minimum age limit of 13 years). The Journal report – which cited a leaked internal memo from Meta – claimed that the move from the tech company was being planned in an effort “to improve user retention, particularly among teens and young adults.”
Those demographics, the author of the Meta memo reportedly wrote, “are the generations that in many ways will be the true digital citizens of the metaverse and have grown up seamlessly interfacing with the technology and connecting with people remotely.”
Despite spending around $15bn on VR-related technologies in 2022, the number of Horizon Worlds users reportedly dropped by around 100,000 between February and October of last year, leaving the platform’s total user base at around 200,000 in October. The following month, Meta announced that it was laying off more than 11,000 employees.
Meta has stated that it aims to boost its VR platform’s monthly active user base to at least 500,000 by mid-2023 and to 1m by the end of this year.
“Getting teens to use the platform is essential to Meta’s bottom line because they are potential life-long users, and their presence and support can make the platform seem trendy,” the authors of the letter write. “But what may be good for your bottom line may be incredibly harmful to young people.”
Meta has a long and ignominious track record of prioritizing profits over the mental health of its users, the letter claims, and the company can therefore not be trusted to responsibly bring teenagers into the fold of the metaverse – an unregulated virtual realm described in the letter as “a risky and seemingly lawless place.”
The letter outlines seven “types of harms or otherwise unfair practices that must be addressed” before Meta should be allowed to open Horizon Worlds to users under the age of 18, including risks associated with mental health risks, data privacy and predation.
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“Before we make Horizon Worlds available to teens, we will have additional protections and tools in place to help provide age-appropriate experiences for them,” says Meta spokesperson Joe Osborne. “Quest headsets are for people 13+ and we encourage parents and caretakers to use our parental supervision tools, including managing access to apps, to help ensure safe experiences.”
It's not the first time that Meta has found itself in hot water over its platforms’ risks to teens' safety and mental health. A bombshell Wall Street Journal report from 2021 found that the company, then called Facebook, had long harbored evidence that its content-sharing platform Instagram negatively impacts teen girls' self-esteem and mental health, but chose to conceal those findings.
Beyond concerns about mental health and online safety, the authors of the new open letter also call out risks presented by marketing in the metaverse, noting that “VR technologies allow for the collection of more sensitive biometric data than traditional digital platforms and the potential for more sophisticated ad-targeting.” As a consequence, they say, “impressionable and vulnerable kids and teens are barraged with powerful messages promoting the interests of advertisers.”
If, despite the letter, Meta decides to allow teenagers into Horizon Worlds, “Mark Zuckerberg will not be able to claim ignorance or offer a bland apology with promises to ‘do better’ in the future,” says Faith Boninger, assistant research professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s National Education Policy Center and one of the signatories of the open letter. “I hope this [letter] will encourage us all to demand greater accountability from Meta in particular and technology companies in general.”
On its website, Meta writes that it wants Horizon Worlds “to be a safe and welcoming environment for everyone.” The company requires that an experience (or “world") within its VR platform be marked as ‘mature’ if it includes content that could be offensive or otherwise harmful – such as the promotion of marijuana products and “excessively violent fictional content.”
Meta – parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp – isn’t the only social media giant that’s facing scrutiny about its potentially harmful impacts on young people. In March, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew appeared before the US House Committee for Energy and Commerce and was questioned by lawmakers for more than five hours about the danger that the social media platform presents to children, among other topics. Lawmakers in the US, Canada and Europe are pushing efforts to ban TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. India banned the platform in 2020.
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