Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, plans to lower the recommended age for using its Quest headset to 10 from 13, the company said in a blog post on Friday, a move that could set off new privacy and safety concerns with parents and global watchdogs.
The company is discussing its plans with regulators, two people with knowledge of Meta’s conversations said, and is trying to assuage immediate concerns over whether younger children using the headset could be subject to greater risk.
Meta said it would require a preteen’s parental approval to set up an account, and that young users would only see apps and content rated for the preteen age group. The Quest headset allows people to enter the so-called metaverse, an immersive online world, and to play virtual reality games and do other tasks.
Over the past year, Meta has slowly moved the age restrictions for its virtual reality apps lower to reach younger audiences. In April, the company said it would allow people under 18 to use Horizon Worlds, its virtual reality-based social network, which appears to have many young users. Horizon Worlds will remain restricted to users 13 and older, as reported earlier by The Verge.
In its blog post, Meta said it was making the age change to the Quest headset “to give families even more ways to use and enjoy Meta Quest.” It added that it was committed to “building safe, positive experiences for young people.”
Technology use by teenagers and children has long been a contentious issue. Last month, the United States surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, issued a public warning about the risks of social media to young people, urging a push to fully understand the possible “harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.” He also called on policymakers to limit young people’s access to social media to help protect children and their privacy.
Virtual reality is a relatively new field and its risks are still emerging. But harassment, assaults, bullying and hate speech already run rampant in virtual reality games, which are part of the metaverse, and there are few mechanisms to easily report the misbehavior, researchers have said.
As concerns have heightened, regulators have taken action. The Federal Trade Commission recently intensified its crackdowns on tech companies for violating a federal children’s privacy law. That law, called the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, requires sites and apps directed at young people to obtain consent from a parent before collecting personal details — like an email address or precise location — from a child under the age of 13.
Meta and its platforms have been of particular concern to regulators. Last month, the F.T.C. said it was considering action to bar Meta from profiting off the data of young people on all of its platforms — including Instagram and Horizon Worlds — and that the company’s “recklessness” had put young users at risk. Meta subsequently asked a federal court to block the agency’s proposed action.
The age change for the Quest headset comes as building a virtual reality-based version of the metaverse has become crucial to Meta’s future. Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s founder and chief executive, has spent the past two years shifting his social networking business to the metaverse. Last year, he spent nearly $14 billion to expand Reality Labs, the company’s arm that is devoted to building hardware and developing the metaverse.
The high costs of trying to turn the metaverse into a mainstream business have spooked Wall Street, causing Meta’s stock to plunge last year. Enthusiasm for the metaverse has also waned over the past year, as more technologists have flocked to the rise of artificial intelligence with the release of chatbots like ChatGPT. Mr. Zuckerberg has similarly pushed to incorporate A.I. into Meta’s products.
But he has also said he remains intent on the metaverse. In a companywide meeting last week, Mr. Zuckerberg assured employees that he was committed to his virtual reality and augmented reality plans and that it would be a long haul toward realizing his vision.
Lowering the minimum age requirements for the company’s Quest headset could help familiarize younger audiences with the metaverse, similar to how Facebook initially started on college campuses in 2004, so that they would be more likely to continue using the technology as they grow up.
Meta is likely seeking to integrate itself into young peoples’ lives, following a strategy used by other gaming companies, including Roblox, Microsoft with its Minecraft game, and Epic Games, the maker of Fortnite. Those games have a combined user base in the hundreds of millions, many of whom are under the age of 35.
“What we have seen is Meta, based solely on business imperatives, continually lowering the age of their virtual reality products and doing so without any evidence that these things are safe for young people,” said Josh Golin, the executive director of Fairplay, a nonprofit children’s advocacy group. “It’s beyond the pale and clearly driven by the fact that they are trying to compete for a market, not driven by kids’ needs.”
Meta is working to assure regulators that it will provide parental controls to keep young users safe when using the device, said the two people with knowledge of the company’s plans who spoke on condition of anonymity. Some of those include time limits, parent-managed controls over content or apps and privacy settings that will not allow other people using Horizon Worlds the ability to follow preteens without approval from them or their parents.
The company said it would use data from preteens who experiment with the Quest headset to deliver an “age-appropriate experience,” but will not serve ads to the age group. Parents can also delete their children’s profiles and associated data.