Randi Zuckerberg says she’s a “big proponent of the real world” — especially when it comes to protecting children from technology.
Speaking at the Credit Suisse Global Supertrends Conference in Singapore earlier this month, Randi Zuckerberg, who is founder and CEO of Zuckerberg Media, discussed worries among many that the metaverse will take children further away from reality.
“I’m a big proponent of the real world, especially when it comes to children,” she said.
“In fact, I think you’ll find that many tech executives and entrepreneurs are the biggest proponents of not giving tech to their own children at a very early age.”
SEC filings do not indicate the size of Zuckerberg’s holdings in Meta, if there are any. However, she’s the sister of Mark Zuckerberg, who is the company’s CEO and owns nearly 13% of Meta.
Last October, Facebook changed its company name to Meta to reflect the social media giant’s pivot to developing virtual reality and augmented reality products and the so-called “metaverse.”
If we can make screen time something that’s valuable and connecting, I far prefer that as a mom [than] to just passively put kids in front of screens.
Founder and CEO, Zuckerberg Media
The metaverse can be loosely defined as a virtual world. With cryptocurrency, people who are active in the metaverse can buy and develop virtual land or dress their own avatars.
However, its virtual reality division, Reality Labs, reported a loss of $2.8 billion during the quarter ending June. Shares of Meta have dropped 50% since the beginning of 2022.
Immersive tech — good or bad?
According to Imran Ahmed, the CEO of nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), traditional social media platforms like Instagram have already shown to have an adverse effect on the mental health of teenagers.
“Given the frequency of abuse in VR and the intensity of being fully immersed in these environments, this should raise real concerns over the emotional and psychological impact of the metaverse on children,” he said.
Ahmed said his organization’s investigation into VRChat — which is typically accessed through Meta’s Oculus Quests headsets — showed that minors were exposed to “abusive behaviour every seven minutes.”
“This included minors being exposed to graphic sexual content, bullying, sexual harassment and abuse of other users. We even found minors being groomed to repeat racist slurs and extremist talking points.”
In an email response to CNBC, a Meta spokesperson said Quest devices are designed for those who are 13 years and above. Its safety guidelines also state that adults should monitor children’s use of its headsets.
What our research found is that children are freely mix with adults in metaverse spaces, and lack tools with which to identify who they are interacting with.
CEO, Centre for Countering Digital Hate
“In Meta-owned apps, users can mute, block and report others, and we recently introduced features like Personal Boundary to help avoid unwanted interactions.”
“I’m definitely not saying that anyone should be spending 12 hours a day [in the metaverse], but the reality is in the U.S., the average American spends five hours a day watching television,” said Zuckerberg.
Instead of watching screens “passively,” she said that technology can provide experiences that are rich, meaningful and educational.
“If we can make screen time something that’s valuable and connecting, I far prefer that as a mom [than] to just passively put kids in front of screens.”
Asking ‘difficult questions’
Like many parents, Zuckerberg acknowledged that she grapples with the possibility that immersive tech like the metaverse could be addictive for children.
However, she said she also believes that it is “very important” for girls have earlier access to technology than for boys.
“A lot of boys get comfortable early with gaming and with playing in these ecosystems, then the girls are at a tremendous disadvantage of not having that access to that,” Zuckerberg explained.
“I actually sometimes try to go out of my way to introduce my daughter to tech,” she said.
Certainly, I do think with any immersive environment that we’re on the front lines of, we do need to be asking these difficult questions and wondering what could happen.
Founder and CEO, Zuckerberg Media
However, Ahmed cautioned that parents should be aware of risks in the metaverse. Such private online spaces can become home to rampant abuse and young girls in particular, can be exposed to sexual harassment, he said.
“What our research found is that children are freely mix with adults in metaverse spaces, and lack tools with which to identify who they are interacting with,” Ahmed added.
Zuckerberg admitted that violent video games are also something that she thinks about “a lot” as a mother. She said that as immersive graphics get better, there could be an effect on children — but it may not be all bad.
“On the flip side, though, there’s also been a lot of studies showing people if they’re put in an immersive environment where they see themselves later in life, they actually make better spending decisions now,” said Zuckerberg.
A 2020 study, for example, showed that VR spaces have the potential to help health-care professionals with “motivational interviewing” — a counseling approach that aims for patients to achieve positive health changes.
“I think there are pros and cons to everything,” Zuckerberg said.
“Certainly, I do think with any immersive environment that we’re on the front lines of, we do need to be asking these difficult questions and wondering what could happen.”
While parents may be able to set screen time boundaries and limit their children’s access to immersive, the “real problem” is that they are unlikely to have any control over what their children encounter while they are in the metaverse, said Ahmed.