Senators urge Zuckerberg to keep teens out of the metaverse

Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Ed Markey (D-MA) wrote a letter to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg urging him to halt Meta's plans to open Horizon Worlds to teens. Per a leaked memo, Meta may open access to its social VR platform for users aged 13 to 17 as early as this month.

"Any strategy to invite young users into a digital space rife with potential harms should not be driven by a goal to maximize profit," the senators wrote. "We call on you to immediately halt Meta’s plan to bring teen users onto Horizon Worlds."

Meta has had problems both with onboarding users to Horizon Worlds and with keeping users protected while using the platform. After its initial rollout, some users reported being groped and sexually harassed in Horizon Worlds; Meta later rolled out a "personal boundary" feature. Though some beginner-centric experiences in Horizon Worlds have community moderators present, 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. Plus, many people reported that the platform is already overrun with young users, who can easily bypass the age limit for the platform.

TechCrunch reached out to Meta for comment on the letter.

Last year, Meta lost $13.7 billion on investments in virtual and augmented reality. Horizon Worlds is a key component of Meta's vision for its metaverse, since it's the company's primary social experience in VR, but the platform has yet to attract a substantial user base. Per The Wall Street Journal, Meta's goal is to reach 150,000 cross-screen users on Horizon platforms by the end of the year, and attracting teen users is part of that plan.

Blumenthal and Markey also referenced documents leaked by whistleblower Frances Haugen, which showed that Meta-owned Instagram makes mental health issues in teen girls worse. Haugen's leaks sparked a series of hearings and legislative proposals, in which both senators have been involved. Thus, the senators are skeptical of Meta's ability to keep Horizon Worlds safe for kids.

As government bodies look deeper into the impact of social media on youths, Instagram paused its plans to develop a version of the platform for users under 13. Instagram also added additional safety tools for users under 16.

"With a documented track record of failure to protect children and teens, Meta has lost parents’, pediatricians’, policymakers’, and the public’s trust," the letter says.