Editor’s take: Does Mark Zuckerberg regret his decision to go all-in on the metaverse? In addition to the billions of dollars it’s already cost the company and the general apathy from the public, the rise of AI has put a shadow over virtual/augmented reality universes. Now, the metaverse is facing more problems in the form of two Democratic senators who want to stop Meta from introducing teens to its Horizon Worlds VR app.
The Wall Street Journal last month reported that in an attempt to draw more users to Horizons Worlds, which is only available to those aged 18 and over, Meta planned to allow users aged 13-17 onto the app, possibly as soon as March.
Two lawmakers unhappy with Meta’s plans are Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey and Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal. They wrote a letter addressed to Zuckerberg about the report, asking him to halt the plan to lower Horizon World’s age limit to 13 in light of the company’s record of failing to protect children and teens. The senators also noted a growing body of evidence that points to the threats younger people face in the metaverse.
Back in 2021, leaked documents showed that Facebook (as it was still called then) had spent the last few years examining the detrimental effects Instagram has on younger users’ mental health but ignored the findings and kept them secret. “Other reports have documented Meta’s failure to stop ads for tobacco, alcohol, and eating disorder content from targeting teens,” the letter states.
The senators say that while research into the metaverse’s impact on teens is in its early stages, initial findings suggest there are threats such as privacy invasion, manipulation, and psychological damage. The possibility of bullying, harassment, and exposure to sexual content is also mentioned.
The letter concludes with “Reporting suggests your company’s push to engage young teens is part of a larger effort to salvage Meta’s struggling metaverse practice. Any strategy to invite young users into a digital space rife with potential harms should not be driven by a goal to maximize profit.”
Earlier this week, Zuckerberg announced that Meta is building a new top-level product group that will focus on implementing generative AI into its services, enabling “delightful experiences” for users. Some are taking this as a sign that the company is quietly moving the focus away from the metaverse and onto artificial intelligence. Reality Labs, the division behind the metaverse, has lost over $24 billion since 2021 trying to make Zuck’s dream a reality, despite many teens showing no interest in the area. Generative AI, meanwhile, has become the next big thing in the tech industry.