Did you purchase your youngster a VR headset for Christmas? You would possibly find yourself regretting it

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Metas Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality headset.

T3 magazine | Future | Getty Images

Parents who bought their children a virtual reality headset for Christmas could get a nasty surprise.

Oculus, the VR division of Facebook parent company Meta, likely saw soaring sales over the holidays, with its main app taking the top spot in Apple’s app store on Christmas Day.

However, the company’s most popular headset, Oculus Quest 2, lacks the option to turn on parental controls, which allows responsible adults to block content over the age of 18 and other material that could be harmful to children.

Other headsets like HTC’s Vive and Valves Index also don’t include parental controls. Though HTC says its headset is not suitable for young children. It is possible to set the parental controls for Sony’s PlayStation VR via the PS4 and PS5 consoles.

Aside from the possibility of children encountering unsafe material, experts are also concerned about the effects of VR on children’s eyes – although little data is available on it.

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 one another.

Renaming the company from Facebook has sparked renewed interest in VR, a technology that has long struggled to gain significant commercial appeal.

Meta said its terms of use do not allow children under the age of 13 to create accounts and that this information will be included in the setup process. All of Oculus’ content is rated by the International Age Rating Coalition, Meta added.

The dark side of VR

The Center for Countering Digital Hate, a non-profit that works for big tech companies to eradicate hate on their platforms, has reported multiple cases of child abuse, harassment, racism in the popular chat room service VRChat available on Oculus and pornography.

A clip shared by the CCDH shows one user playing a recording extolling child abuse while another shows someone joking about being a “convicted sex offender” with a minor gift. The organization says VR headsets are not safe for kids whether or not there is parental control in place.

Imran Ahmed, chairman of the board of directors of the CCDH, said the metaverse is “a haven for hate, pornography and child care” that “connects users not only with one another but with a range of predators”.

“Any parent who gave Facebook’s VR Oculus headset for Christmas should be aware that they are potentially exposing their children to serious harm,” he added.

Meta has announced that it will invest $ 50 million in global research and program partners to ensure that its Metaverse products are responsibly developed.

Regarding VRChat, Meta spokeswoman Kristina Milian told CNBC that the game is a cross-platform app, which means that “players who connect from Quest can interact with players who connect from another platform at any time,” such as SteamVR or Microsoft Windows.

“This means Quest users can report and block others, but we cannot take action against abusers who are not users of our platform,” added Milian.

A spokesman for the creators of VRChat was not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC.

What do parents think?

Setting up an Oculus Quest 2 is pretty simple and only takes a few minutes. Users have to link their Facebook account, which requires a minimum age of 13 years. But even younger children cannot use it if they have access to their parents’ account.

Some parents told CNBC they were happy to let their kids use VR while they were under parental supervision. However, they also expressed concern about the lack of parental controls in Oculus.

Matt Miller, a tech entrepreneur who founded software development company Ustwo, said he bought an Oculus headset for his children, ages 11 and 13.

“We wanted the kids to have something to show their friends when they come over,” he said. “I liked the idea that they could go to places they’d never been before.”

But Miller and his wife Lisa think Meta should introduce the ability to filter what kids can see in Oculus, an opinion echoed by other parents.

Eric Berry, a software engineer from Saratoga Springs, Utah, says he was tempted to buy his kids an Oculus Quest 2 until he found the device didn’t have parental controls.

“I hope they add them soon, or it will turn their device into a parent’s worst nightmare,” Berry said on Twitter.

Still, Miller said VR was an “overwhelming experience” and that his kids enjoy playing games like the rhythm-action title Beat Saber and the social gaming app Rec Room. “They only play the games we bought,” he added.

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