Consumers call on Meta to protect kids’ safety in Quest virtual reality

The popular Meta Quest virtual reality headset is marketed to kids as young as 10, but is it safe? Here’s what you should know, and what you can do to keep kids safe.

Pexels user Alessia Lorenzi | Public Domain

Take Action

Has a kid in your life been begging you for a virtual reality headset? They can be pretty fun, offering a new way to play games with friends. And Meta (formerly Facebook) recently lowered the recommended age to 10 for its popular Quest virtual reality headset.

But before you go out and buy one, there are a few things you need to know.

U.S. PIRG Education Fund tested Meta’s newest headset, the Quest 3 — and warns that it may be unsafe for kids. In its latest report, U.S. PIRG Education Fund found that even with increased parental controls, the Quest virtual reality headset could potentially expose young users to inappropriate content, health risks, and threats to their privacy.

Quest testers found that VR headsets can expose kids to inappropriate content

To test what young users see when using VR, PIRG created a kids’ account for a fictional 10-year-old. Parents can control what apps their child downloads with these “junior” accounts, and Meta turns off access to certain age-inappropriate apps by default. But as PIRG found, those controls aren’t good enough.

While playing as a 10-year-old on a Meta Quest 3 headset, PIRG researchers tested Rec Room, rated “E for Everyone ages 10 and up” and one of the most popular apps currently available. 

The app quickly recommended a game of Russian roulette with real players sitting around a table, passing around a gun. Within moments of entering the game, a player sitting across from our virtual 10-year-old shot himself in the head.

In addition to Russian roulette (called Breaking Point in the app), Rec Room also recommended horror games and first-person shooter games to our 10-year-old player.

And it’s not only violent content that’s easily accessible to kids. Our fictional 10-year-old player was also exposed to profanity and hate speech, such as a swastika drawn on a virtual whiteboard by another player. 

Other researchers have documented instances in which their test accounts for fictional players as young as 13 were able to access sexual content, including virtual strip clubs and explicit rooms where players simulated sex. 

Real-life teens exploring or stumbling upon these virtual spaces are likely to interact with adult users, and other researchers have also documented instances in which teen accounts experienced sexual harassment and even virtual sexual assault.

PIRG staff | TPIN
Meta's own warning about the intensity of VR content in its health and safety guide.

VR headsets, such as the Meta Quest, can harm kids’ mental and emotional health

When you put on a virtual reality headset, it feels like you’re inside the game. You look up, and you see the virtual sky. You look down, and you see the virtual gun in your hand. If someone shoots a gun behind you, it sounds like it went off behind you. And your opponent — who looks 2 inches tall when you’re playing on a laptop — looks like a 6-foot-tall grown man standing right in front of you. 

Meta blends VR gaming and social media, and everything feels much more real and intense in virtual reality than on a 2-D computer screen. This can make the physical and emotional reactions felt by young players much stronger.

“The amount of technology in our children’s lives is already impacting their mental health,” one developmental pediatrician told us. “Introducing yet another piece of technology — especially one as novel and engaging as virtual reality — could have real ramifications for the development of longterm social-emotional well-being, cognitive skills like focus, and for regulating behavior in general.”

It’s also clear that exposure to virtual reality can affect the brain, even if we don’t yet fully understand how.

Much more research needs to be done in this area, but one researcher found that using VR can trigger abnormal brain function in rats, and could potentially even rewire the brain over time in unpredictable or even harmful ways.

Apps could use Meta Quest VR headsets to gather data on kids

We might be used to companies collecting our names, birthdays, email addresses and even Social Security numbers. But Meta Quest virtual reality headsets can collect a lot more data than we’re used to, including voice recordings and background sounds in your home, the layout of the room you’re playing in, how your body moves, and more.

In one study, researchers found that they could infer a player’s geolocation, age, relative physical fitness level, and physical or mental disabilities after just a few minutes of movement data was collected through a VR escape room game.

Given that there’s little to no regulation on how companies collect and use biometric and movement data, parents should be aware of the sensitivity of the data VR collects before bringing a VR headset home.

And, of course, whenever apps gather excessive information and sell it to other companies, it increases the odds that personal data will be exposed in a breach or a hack. Third-party apps available in Meta’s VR app store can collect a lot of data, and each app will have its own privacy policy and default settings that you’ll need to review.

Tim O'Connor | TPIN
R.J. Cross demonstrates the Meta Quest 3 at a press conference.

PIRG and concerned consumers are calling on Meta to protect kids’ safety

The child health experts we spoke to recommended that we approach virtual reality using the precautionary principle: don’t use it until we know it’s safe for developing brains.

Right now, a lot more research needs to be done before we can be sure of that. And for that reason, the experts we spoke to recommend not allowing children to have a Meta Quest virtual reality headset (or any other brand of VR headset).

PIRG is urging Meta not to market its VR headsets to children and teens under 18 unless and until they’re safe. Add your name to our petition to Meta today.

Topics
Authors

R.J. Cross

Director, Don't Sell My Data Campaign, PIRG

R.J. focuses on data privacy issues and the commercialization of personal data in the digital age. Her work ranges from consumer harms like scams and data breaches, to manipulative targeted advertising, to keeping kids safe online. In her work at Frontier Group, she has authored research reports on government transparency, predatory auto lending and consumer debt. Her work has appeared in WIRED magazine, CBS Mornings and USA Today, among other outlets. When she’s not protecting the public interest, she is an avid reader, fiction writer and birder.

Find Out More
staff | TPIN

This Earth Day, put our planet over plastic

We are working to move our country beyond plastic — and we need your help. Will you make a gift in honor of Earth Day to help us keep making progress?

Donate