Meta has decided to move forward with its plans to allow teenagers access to Horizon Worlds virtual reality app despite concerns from civil society and lawmakers that the technology may have unintended effects on mental health.
The social media giant announced on Tuesday that children as young 13 years old in Canada and the United States would be able to access Horizon Worlds in the coming week.
The app is available for users over the age of 17 and represents Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for next-generation Internet, where users are able to physically interact in virtual spaces that resemble real life.
Meta wrote in a blog that teens would be able 'to explore immersive worlds and play games such as Arena Clash or Giant Mini Paddle Golf', to enjoy live comedy and concerts, and connect with other teens from around the globe. They will also be able 'to express themselves by creating their own virtual experience'.
Zuckerberg is pushing to spend billions on VR hardware and software even though Meta has cut back in other areas of its business. The company spent $16 billion on its Reality Labs division last year and warned investors that profitability was not expected from this unit any time soon.
Meta's Tuesday expansion is a reflection of its attempt to attract early adopters from a key demographic. It sparked immediate criticism from legislators who had asked the company to delay its plan.
"Meta is despicably trying to lure young teenagers to Horizon Worlds to try and boost its failing platform," said Connecticut Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal who, last month, together with Massachusetts Democratic Senator Ed Markey, asked Zuckerberg to reconsider the decision to allow teens to use the app.
The impact of Instagram and other Meta products on young users has been a concern for lawmakers in the past.
Markey accused Meta of "inviting a digital disaster" by claiming that Meta has a history of failing to protect children and teenagers.
Markey said: 'I call on the company's to reverse its course and abandon this policy immediately.
In an open letter, dozens of civil societies groups echoed these calls earlier this month. They wrote that Meta's VR services could expose users new privacy risks due to the collection of biometric data and other information; unfair and deceptive forms of marketing; or abuse and bullying.
Meta announced in its announcement that it would be providing protective guardrails when opening Horizon Worlds for teens. This includes using default settings in order to hide the profiles and activities of teenage users from other users, and applying content ratings in potentially mature virtual spaces. Meta said that it developed its safety controls with the help of parents and online safety specialists.
Nick Clegg told CNN that he hoped no one would assume we were going to open the floodgates. He said this during a recent demonstration of Meta's technology at its Washington office. "Clearly, we cannot do that." We must create experiences that are tailored to the specific vulnerabilities of teenagers.
Meta's announcement came Tuesday as officials from the US government said that they would be increasing their scrutiny of the potential mental health effects of social media.
Alvaro Bedoya is an FTC Commissioner. He said that the Federal Trade Commission 'actively works' to hire in-house psychiatrists to address concerns about social media use and teen mental health.
Bedoya, a member of a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee, told lawmakers that members of the FTC had been consulting public health officials and doctors to better understand the scientific evidence available on the issue.
Bedoya stated that the research shows that certain uses of social media can harm children and teenagers. However, he warned that there are important caveats and nuances to this research. This is not a moral panic. There is an 'there'.