The word 'metaverse' is the latest buzzword in the tech world and around the media, but what is the metaverse, why is it important, and what impact will it have on the way our children play and socialise online? Read on to find out more about the metaverse, and what parents need to know to ensure their children stay safe online in this new virtual world.
The word 'metaverse' is from the realms of science fiction. It is derived from a combination of the Greek prefix 'meta' meaning 'beyond' and 'verse' from the word 'universe'. It was first used by author Neal Stephenson in his dystopian novel 'Snow Crash' back in 1992. In this work of fiction, the metaverse is described as a type of virtual reality, full of avatars, where interactions in the virtual world can have a direct impact on what happens in real life. The concept has been more recently explored in the Spielberg film Ready Player One.
The idea of the metaverse is that virtual reality (VR) will combine with other technologies to allow us to fully interact with a 3D environment online, rather than just watching it on a screen. Through VR headsets and augmented reality glasses (or whatever technology is to come in the future), we'll be able to live in fantastical online worlds in which we can meet other people and do everything that we can do in the real world. From attending events and playing games, to working, dating and shopping, all your social interactions can be lived out in the metaverse, in real time.
Today, in the real world, the metaverse is a long way from becoming a reality, but strategies for its development are already in place. To highlight its importance, Facebook recently announced that it would be changing its name to 'Meta', in a move to align itself with the metaverse concept, and ensure it remains at the forefront of human connectivity in the future. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, “The defining quality of the metaverse will be a feeling of presence - like you are right there with another person or in another place. Feeling truly present with another person is the ultimate dream of social technology. That is why we are focused on building this”.
But it isn't just Mark Zuckerberg who is backing the metaverse. There have been lots of trends in recent times which are driving its development too:
Social gaming platforms such as Fortnite and Roblox are becoming more popular than ever - and they already use a form of metaverse prototype in their games. On these platforms, users can explore far-flung worlds, using avatars to create their own online experiences.
Everyone has been forced to seek out new ways of interacting and communicating due to the pandemic. Now, more than ever, we are desperate for real-time interaction that we can't currently have due to lockdowns and travel restrictions.
After the success of the smartphone, large tech giants like Apple, Amazon, Google and Meta are on the lookout for the next big thing. The metaverse has been described as the successor of mobile internet, and so is a natural next step for tech developers.
We can't stop progress, especially when it comes to new technologies, so although the metaverse in its true form doesn't yet exist, we need to ensure we are aware of what impact it could have on our children's online safety as they grow up in this new virtual world.
Although we don't really know today what the metaverse is, or the exact form it will take in the future, in its simplest terms it should be thought of as a digital space where people come together. Many children are already using digital spaces to connect and interact with their friends, using games such as Fortnite and Roblox, so the same rules about online safety should apply to any interactions that take place in the metaverse.
The main issue with children using these digital spaces now, and in the metaverse, is that they bring them into contact with people all over the world, both friends, and strangers. And whenever children are connecting with people in this way, there is always a danger. Implement the same controls you would normally use, such as limiting chat features, and talk openly to your children about what you think is appropriate. It's a good idea to become contacts with the friends your child is interacting with virtually, so you can monitor activity - your child will resist, but explain that this is one of the conditions for access. Also remind them that rules may be different for other parents and their children.
Natterhub's Family Agreement resources can help you set boundaries and ground rules, as a family, so your child feels included in the process.
You may not know your VR from your AR, but now is the time to learn, as it will help you keep up with the changing digital landscape. Take time to read up on some of the latest technologies, so you are armed with some knowledge. So what's the difference between VR and AR?
Virtual Reality (VR) - this is designed to be a completely immersive, fictional experience. You wear a VR headset that covers your eyes with monitors and plays sound and music through headphones, so everything you experience is part of a digitally-created environment.
Augmented Reality (AR) - this is where the real world is enhanced with a digital element. It's not a fully immersive experience, as everything is viewed on a screen (e.g. a smartphone or through AR glasses). An example would be Pokémon Go, where the creature appears overlaid onto the real scene the camera is capturing. AR glasses project information onto small screens that overlay wearable lenses.
Parents should always monitor any time spent in the virtual world in the same way they would any other screen time. Virtual reality experiences can be intense, and most VR technology has a recommended minimum age limit of 12 years old. Although there is nothing to suggest it is bad for children's health, it can lead to motion sickness if they are susceptible to this in the real world, and can cause tiredness and tension in the eyes, in the same way that looking at any screen for too long does. And it's important to remember that as well as physical effects, virtual reality experiences trigger the same emotions as they would in the real world, including anxiety and fear, so it can be an overwhelming experience for younger users.
Natterhub's aim is to teach children to be safe and kind digital citizens, giving them the skills they need to thrive online. Our children will grow up in a world where the metaverse is part of daily life, so it's crucial that staying safe online becomes part of their everyday life too.
Natterhub does this through its educational social media platform for primary school children. Using this interface, that looks and feels like social media, children learn key skills through a series of interactive lessons. Teachers can make use of Natterhub's extensive library of engaging resources, and keep track of progress using Badges of Honour.
Find out more about how Natterhub can help teach online safety in primary schools here.
We hope you enjoyed reading our 'What is the Metaverse? What Parents Need to Know' guide. Visit our Digital Parenting section for more advice on how to support your child online.
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