THE METAVERSE ISN’T THE FUTURE, IT’S HERE AND IT SCARES THE HELL OUT OF ME

A 3D virtual world where users can interact with one another, in short, that’s how the metaverse is described. I have to admit that I’m a little confused as to why this is making headlines as a new phenomena invented by Facebook (ahem Meta). If I’m not mistaken, there’s a host of virtual reality platforms that have existed for quite some time which allow users to interact, game with one another, and even make purchases. Xbox live, PlayStation Network, Steam and not to mention Blizzard Entertainment with notable titles like World of Warcraft and Diablo – just to name a few. Sure the idea goes beyond simply gaming but discussing the nuances isn’t really the point of this post.

Roblox is my recent introduction to the interactive online community. After a rough few months of coping with sicknesses and quarantines, I awarded myself a break and downloaded the game for my 7 year old daughter. Imagine my shock when I came across an article entitled Roblox: The children’s game with a sex problem. I was actually doing a pretty decent job of keeping my kids away from electronics, especially when I was the mom of just one angelic baby girl. But, throw a second kid into the mix, an energetic little boy who turned three in the midst of a lockdown, and all the sanctimonious parenting practices just flew out the window.

The unfortunate fact is that you can’t keep you kids in a bubble forever and, to a certain degree, you need to evolve with the times. Or do you? Apparently, those dictating the “times” are manipulating our evolutionary need to connect and using human psychology against us. Those of you who caught the Social Dilemma on Netflix know what I’m talking about. But essentially, it seems the cons of connecting online are beginning to outweigh the pros. The rise in body dysmorphia, cyber-bullying, internet addiction, anxiety and depression are clear signs that wandering the world wide web has generated some real, while unintended, negative consequences. We’re seeing a shift in the ways children are spending their time, particularly because of the pandemic. A study published by JAMA Network Open found that more screen time among children during the COVID-19 pandemic led to an increase in mental health issues, as well as behavioral and attention problems.

These technology products were not designed by child psychologists who are trying to protect and nurture children. They were just designing to make algorithms that were really good at recommending the next video to you or really good at getting you to take a photo with a filter on it. It’s not just that it’s controlling where they spend their attention. Especially social media, which starts to dig deeper and deeper down into the brain stem and take over kids’ sense of self-worth and identity.

Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google and co-founder of Centre for Humane Technologies

The challenges extend to physical well being too. Each year ParticipACTION conducts a study to analyze the physical fitness of Canadian adults and children. The last report card released in 2020 gave our kids:

  • A D+ for overall physical activity
  • A D+ for sedentary behaviours
  • An F for active play
  • An F for 24-Hour movement behaviours

It also showed that:

  • Only 39% of children and youth in Canada meet the national physical activity guidelines of 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per day.
  • Less than 1 in 5 children (5-11-year-olds) and youth (12-17-year-olds) in Canada are meeting national movement behaviour guidelines for physical activity, sedentary behaviours and sleep.

Additionally, the study reported findings from Statistics Canada indicating that youth aged 12-17 years accumulate 4 hours per day of screen time outside of school while 50% of kids in grades 6-10 use a cell phone within an hour of going to bed each night. It’s important to note that the recommended amount of screen time is no more than 2 hours per day.

Unfortunately, Canadian adults didn’t fare any better. Only 12% of us spend fewer than eight hours of sedentary time per day, earning us a big fat F in that category. And, the number of parents reporting that they spend too much time on their phones has increased dramatically over the years. We’re fooling ourselves if we don’t think that affects how our kids use technology. So the buck stops with us. As hard as it is to believe sometimes, parental influence on kids is huge. In fact, each additional 20 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity by parents is associated with an extra 5 minutes for their child. While it may not be easy to get our kids off their tablets and on a bike or a pair of skates, I imagine the more we model the behaviour the more we’ll succeed and, hopefully, the less inclined they’ll be to digitize their play dates.

With the total value of augmented and virtual reality products forecast to hit $36 billion while revenue opportunity in the metaverse is expected to reach a trillion, I think it’s safe to say that the evolution of Web 3.0 is something that, as parents, we’re really going to have to monitor and closely manage.

At a lot of these technology companies there are three main goals. There’s the engagement goal, to drive up your usage to keep you scrolling. There’s the growth goal, to keep you coming back and inviting more friends and getting them to invite more friends. And then there’s the advertising goal, to make sure that as all of that’s happening we’re making as much money as possible from advertising.

Tristan Harris

Back to Roblox. Thankfully there are a suite of parental controls (all of which I implemented in the midst of writing this post) but it seems to me that policing the online activity of our kids may become a full-time job. I’d much rather have them outdoors playing with friends in the real world where inhibition, eye contact and consequence exist. Judging by the fact that my daughter spent all last week excitedly crafting a school project with bristol board, old photos and glue, there’s still hope and time to shift gears. Who’s with me?

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