By Chris Teale
April 11, 2022 at 12:01 am ET
A new special report from Morning Consult explores the public’s interest in and concerns around the metaverse, as Meta Platforms Inc. and others ramp up work on the virtual reality platform. The data is drawn from a survey of 4,420 U.S. adults. Other stories in the series: Companies Are Set to Spend Billions on the Metaverse in the Next Decade. These Are the Groups They Should Target | In the Metaverse, Live Concerts Hold More Appeal Than Live Sports and Shopping | All metaverse coverage
The second-biggest worry was cyberbullying and online abuse in the metaverse, with 44% saying it was a major concern, while personal safety and sexual harassment were cited by 39% and 38% of respondents, respectively.
35% of adults said they have major concerns about the mental health impacts of entering the metaverse, while 29% said they are worried about motion sickness from virtual reality technology.
36% of adults said government regulations would be important when considering whether they want to enter the metaverse, as lawmakers eye initial regulatory steps for the technology.
Tech companies have been the subject of sustained criticism in recent years for lax approaches to data protection, content moderation, user safety and impacts on mental health.
And their moves into the metaverse appear to be sparking many of those same fears in the public, a Morning Consult survey found, with many U.S. adults also concerned about the cost of the technology and its effects on their physical well-being.
According to the survey, 55% of adults said they have major concerns about how their personal data could be tracked and misused in the metaverse, while another 24% said they have minor worries about the possibility.
Meta Platforms Inc. already has given an indication of its intentions for the metaverse through a series of patent approvals this year, which include letting users have authentic eye and body movements. Elected officials worry that tracking those movements will mean Meta will collect scads of data on its users.
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) warned during a speech earlier this year at the State of the Net conference in Washington, D.C., that tracking biometric data could “lead to harmful marketing practices that may be inherently manipulative to children.”
Of those who indicated that they are interested in entering the metaverse, 60% said they have major concerns about the misuse of their data, while 31% said it was a minor concern.
Many adults are also worried about content moderation and safety in the metaverse. More than 2 in 5 said they are very concerned about online abuse and cyberbullying, while slightly smaller shares expressed major concerns about sexual harassment and whether content moderation of offensive behavior will be sufficient.
Meanwhile, 51% of those who said they are interested in the metaverse said they have major concerns about online abuse and cyberbullying, while 44% said the same about content moderation and 47% said they are similarly worried about sexual harassment on the platform.
Users in Meta’s Horizon Worlds have reported being groped by strangers and sexually harassed, leading Meta to introduce a “Personal Boundary” feature that creates a small barrier around an avatar but can be disabled by users.
And in a bid to get ahead of the concerns about content moderation and the safety of children in the metaverse and on social media, Meta announced a series of parental supervision tools for its VR platforms. That includes letting parents restrict their teens’ access on Quest headsets to experiences they deem inappropriate and launching a Parent Dashboard with various supervision tools. Meta did not respond to requests for further comment.
Juan Londoño, an augmented and virtual reality policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said content moderation in the metaverse will require companies to balance user privacy and safety. Some people may not be comfortable with having real-time conversations moderated, he said, but it will be a way to catch bad actors.
“If you overprioritize privacy and say, ‘No, we don’t feel comfortable recording our users,’ a lot of stuff like harassment could go through the cracks,” he said. “I think it’s a very sensible balance between user privacy and user safety that I think we’ve already seen with legacy social media, and I think the challenge is going to be even bigger.”
Respondents are also concerned about impacts the metaverse could have on their mental and physical well-being. About a third said they have major concerns about the mental health impacts, while nearly 3 in 10 said they are very worried about motion sickness from VR headsets.
Those interested in the metaverse are even more concerned: More than 2 in 5 said they have major concerns about the mental health effects of the platform, while a slightly smaller share said the same about motion sickness.
Some health experts have already raised concerns about the effects of the metaverse on cognitive development and brain function, especially as research is limited.
“One thing we do know from psychology is that the brain does tend to treat VR experience as real,” Dr. Susan Persky, head of the health communication and behavior unit at the National Institutes of Health’s National Human Genome Research Institute, said in a speech at State of the Net. NIH did not respond to requests for further comment.
About 4 in 5 respondents said they do not currently own a virtual reality headset, and many cited a lack of interest in the technology and its cost as reasons why they do not.
A lack of interest in VR headsets was a reason 75% cited for why they did not own the technology, while 67% blamed its cost. Another 46% said they did not have compatible hardware, while roughly a third blamed a lack of space and a lack of VR content for their nonownership.
Half of adults said they considered lower-priced technology to be an important factor when deciding whether to try to enter the metaverse. Two in 5 said more available content would push them into using it, while a nearly equal share said if their family and friends used the metaverse, it would make them more likely to do so.
Just 30% said their workplace’s use of the metaverse would be an important factor when considering whether to use it; some companies have already had their employees use it for collaboration and training in the workplace.
Microsoft Corp. Chief Executive Satya Nadella said during the company’s second-quarter earnings call that it is using the metaverse to help organizations “digitize people, places and things in order to visualize, simulate and analyze any business process.” A Microsoft spokesperson declined to comment further.
Brian Bothwell, director of the Government Accountability Office’s Science, Technology Assessment and Analytics team that produced a January report on extended reality technologies, said it may take a while for other companies to make the “business decision that it’s worthwhile” to enter the metaverse, although once they make those investments it will spur others to do the same.
Meanwhile, some lawmakers are considering measures that would aim to prevent many of the issues in the metaverse that social media has already faced in recent years.
For many, the priority appears to be protecting children in the metaverse, and while Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.) said regulations are “pre-nascent,” the time is right to get started while the technology is new and clearly targeting young people.
“If you are having 8- to 13-year-olds spend six to eight hours in your platform, if you’re asking them to yield their attention and to have their cognitive development subject to the universe that you’re creating, you are going to answer to Washington, D.C., and to the American people about that,” Auchincloss said during a speech at State of the Net.
Lawmakers are already weighing oversight options, even as they have remained largely unable to regulate the current generation of social media. Per the survey, 36% of respondents said it is important to them for there to be government regulations of the metaverse, with larger shares of Black and Hispanic adults, millennials and Gen Zers expressing that sentiment. A Morning Consult survey from December 2021 found that just over half of U.S. adults support the regulation of social media companies generally.
Bothwell said it is a “little early” to be thinking about regulations with so much “in flux,” while Markey, meanwhile, has emphasized the need for partnerships to protect children in the metaverse.
“We don’t have to wait until we have a total child catastrophe with VR on our hands,” Markey said in his February speech, noting that he has asked the Federal Trade Commission to step up its enforcement powers. “We should have the wisdom to anticipate, but it’s going to require parents and policymakers and pediatricians to all come together to create this movement.” (Markey did not respond to a request for further comment).