Meta announced today that it’s opening up Horizon Worlds to teen users in the U.S. and Canada, after previously restricting the social VR platform to users 18 years of age and above. As part of the expansion, the company says it’s introducing a set of age-appropriate protections and safety defaults.
The move comes as lawmakers and children’s rights activists had urged Meta to abandon its plans to open up the platform to young users.
Today’s announcement doesn’t come as a surprise, as a leaked memo revealed back in February that Meta planned to open up access to Horizon Worlds to users aged 13 to 17. At the time, Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Ed Markey (D-MA) wrote a letter to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg urging him to halt the plans, arguing that giving teens access to “digital space rife with potential harms” would be a bad idea.
Meta says it has invested in new safety features including back-end protections and parental supervision tools that allows parents and teens to help manage the experience before making Worlds available to this age group. The company says it’s rolling out Horizon Worlds to teens slowly, so that it can carefully examine usage before expanding more broadly.
Teens can choose who they follow and who can follow them back, and their profiles are automatically set to private, which means they can approve or decline anyone who requests to follow them. By default, Meta also won’t show a teen’s active status and their Horizon Worlds location to other people, but these settings can be changed, as teens can choose whether their connections can see if they’re active online and which public world or event they’re in.
“We use content ratings to ensure teens have an age-appropriate experience within Worlds,” Meta wrote in a blog post. “For example, mature world and event ratings prevent teens from finding, seeing, or entering spaces that contain mature content. Our policies prohibit teens from publishing mature worlds or events. Worlds violating this policy will be removed.”
Meta will also transform the voices of people a teen doesn’t know into garbled sounds. The teens voice will be garbled too, so people they don’t know can’t hear them.
In addition, Meta says it will limit interaction between teens and adults by not displaying any adults a teen doesn’t know in their “people you might know” list.
As for parents, they will be able to set up Worlds parental supervision by inviting their teen to connect though Meta’s Family Center offering. Once this is set up, parents will be able to see, adjust, and lock safety features. Parents will also be able to see who their teen follows and who follows their teen. The controls allow parents to see how much time teens have spent in Worlds and also block their teens from using Worlds altogether.
In days leading up the announcement, many children’s rights activists had asked Meta to abandon its plans to attract young teens onto the social VR platform, worrying that doing so would expose them to sexually explicit and homophobic content.
Meta has had problems both with keeping users protected while using the platform. After its initial rollout, some users reported being groped and sexually harassed in Horizon Worlds. To address this, Meta later rolled out a “personal boundary” feature. Much of the platform can feel like a free-for-all, since it can be difficult to moderate speech-based interactions on a massive scale.