I know this is quite the novel take, but hear me out. From my view of it, the internet has never been a safe place for kids, and I’m not sure how it could become one.
That’s not to say that we should completely bar children from the online world. There are plenty of online tools that are great for kids to learn, more companies are working to implement child safety measures into their platforms, and the internet can be a great way for young people who have trouble making real-life connections to make friends with similar interests to them. However, there are and always have been bad actors in spaces made for kids.
With the announcement of Epic Games and Lego coming together to make a “metaverse for kids”, it got me thinking about my early experiences on the internet and on “metaverses” made with a younger audience in mind. Yes, they already exist and have existed for years. Think Neopets. Think Animal Jam. Think Roblox. Think Club Penguin. Hell, even think Habbo Hotel.
Habbo Hotel is an interesting example because the avatar-based chat room states in their rules that you can only sign up if you are over 13 years old, but is that really going to stop anybody? How many of you clicked a ‘Yes, I am 18’ button before you were actually 18 years old? Nobody checks. Nothing stops you.
The world of “metaverses for kids” has existed for quite a while now, and has been a great way for children to be lambasted with the reality of the online world. Neopets saw its fair share of scams for kids, Animal Jam did too with the extra addition of people doing horny wolf roleplay. The same can be said in Club Penguin, its post-closure knockoffs especially. And only recently, Roblox faced allegations of introducing young people to the wonderful world of being exploited for their labour.
I say all this not from the perspective of someone that is screaming, “Won’t somebody please think of the children?!”, but as someone that has seen what the internet offers on a grand scale. What it offers is largely not child-friendly, but is also easily accessible to anybody of any age.
This is not entirely the fault of the companies that make these platforms, as their existence comes with good intentions. It’s those that take advantage of these platforms that turn traversing them as a child into a minefield. And it can be hard to weed them out.
The world wide web grows larger every single day, with more horrific stuff being added by the second. TikTok, a platform largely populated by children, has had its fair share of inappropriate content popping up on the app. Last month, former TikTok moderators sued the company over the sheer amount of graphically violent and sexual content they had to sift through, content that is, again, posted on an app largely populated by children.
The positive side of “metaverses” like Club Penguin, Roblox, and Animal Jam in comparison to platforms like TikTok is that content like that can’t be shared through them. Plus, they’re a lot of fun. And in this sense, maybe they can somewhat function as safe spaces for young people to go online.
It will be interesting to see just how Lego and Epic Games manage to “shape the future of the metaverse to make it safe and fun for children”. Another positive side to online spaces for children is the opportunity for them to learn and express themselves creatively. I mean, have you seen some of the out-of-this-world stuff that kids make in Minecraft? Even Roblox can be seen as an example of what young people are capable of when given the right tools.
At the end of the day, it’s partially about just how much work big companies that make these online spaces for children put into actually protecting them. As well as that, how parents regular their children’s time online plays a huge role.
Adult content has always existed online and will continue to do so for years to come. It takes a lot of work to make sure said content doesn’t fall in front of the eyes of children, and it’s just a matter of whether or not companies like Lego and Epic Games have the power to do that work.
The internet can be a weird and wonderful place full of opportunities to learn, be creative, and make friends, but dividing it from the side of the internet filled with depravity and debauchery is a difficult and sometimes fruitless task.
And all this being said, I would love for there to be some kind of “metaverse for kids” where young people can freely express themselves online and make friends their own age from all around the world. I’m not trying to fear-monger, it’s a wholesome concept.
But can it be done? I don’t really know, but it would be great to see it executed successfully.