Parents who bought their children a virtual reality headset for Christmas could be in for a nasty surprise.
Oculus, the VR division of Facebook parent company Meta, likely saw surging sales over the holidays, with its main app taking the top spot in Apple’s App Store on Christmas Day.
But Oculus Quest 2, the company’s most popular headset, doesn’t come with the option to turn on parental controls that let responsible adults block 18+ content and other material that may be harmful for kids.
Other headsets, such as HTC’s Vive and Valve’s Index, also don’t include child safety features. Although HTC says its headset isn’t suitable for young children. It is possible to set parental controls for Sony’s PlayStation VR via its PS4 and PS5 consoles.
Aside from the possibility of kids encountering unsafe material, experts are also worried about the effects VR may have on children’s eyes — though there is little data available on this.
Meta has made VR a crucial focus of its business in its pivot to the so-called “metaverse,” a shared virtual world in which people can work, play and interact with each other.
The company’s rebrand from Facebook has fueled renewed interest in VR, a technology that has long struggled to gain significant commercial traction.
Meta said its terms of service do not allow children under the age of 13 to create accounts, and that this information is included in the setup process. All Oculus content is rated through the International Age Rating Coalition, Meta added.
The dark side of VR
The Center for Countering Digital Hate, a non-profit that campaigns for Big Tech firms to root out hate from their platforms, found several instances of child abuse, harassment, racism and pornography in the popular chatroom service VRChat, which is available on Oculus.
One clip shared by the CCDH features a user playing a recording praising child abuse, while another shows someone joking about being a “convicted sex offender” with a minor present. The organization says VR headsets are not safe for kids, regardless of the absence parental controls.
Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the CCDH, said the metaverse “is a haven for hate, pornography and child grooming” that “connects users not just to each other but to an array of predators.”
“Any parent who gifted Facebook’s VR Oculus headset for Christmas needs to be aware that they are potentially exposing their children to serious danger,” he added.
Regarding VRChat, Meta spokesperson Kristina Milian told CNBC that this app is a cross-platform application. “This means at any given time, players connecting from Quest may be interacting with players connecting from another platform,” like SteamVR or Microsoft Windows, she said.
Meta has also said it will invest $50 million in global research and program partners to ensure its metaverse products are developed responsibly.
A spokesperson for the makers of VRChat wasn’t immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC.
What do parents think?
The process of setting up an Oculus Quest 2 is fairly straightforward and takes a matter of minutes. Users have to link their Facebook account, which requires them to be at least 13 years old. But there’s nothing to stop younger children from using it, provided they’ve got access to their parent’s account.
Some parents told CNBC they were happy letting their kids use VR, so long as they were under parental supervision. But they also expressed concern at the lack of parental controls in Oculus.
Matt Miller, a tech entrepreneur who founded the software development firm Ustwo, said he bought an Oculus headset for his kids, who are 11 and 13 years old.
“We wanted the kids to have something that they could show their friends when they came over,” he said. “I liked the idea that they can learn about places they’ve never been before.”
But Miller and his partner Lisa think Meta should introduce the ability to filter what kids can see in Oculus, a sentiment echoed by other parents.
Eric Berry, a software engineer based in Saratoga Springs, Utah, says he was tempted to buy his kids an Oculus Quest 2, until he realized there were no parental controls in the device.
“I hope they add them soon or it will make their device a parents worst nightmare,” Berry said on Twitter.
Still, Miller said VR is a “compelling experience” and that his kids enjoy playing games like rhythm action title Beat Saber and social gaming app Rec Room. “They only play the games that we’ve bought,” he added.