Meta Expands Parental Control over Children’s Screen Time

In a much-needed step towards a safer Internet for children, Meta’s newest parental supervision tools assist in monitoring children and adolescents as they traverse the virtual reality landscape.

The update enables parents and guardians to block apps and web browsers directly, view their children’s screen time and friend lists, and disable the ability to use the Link and Air Link features on Quest headsets to access otherwise blocked content on the users’ personal computers. The monitoring tools include the ability to view app downloads and purchases on user headsets, as well as an optional requirement for adolescents to notify their parents and initiate parental approval for app purchases. Additionally, the company will launch a new parent education hub with a guide on how to use the VR monitoring tools.

Dr. Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, wrote in the update’s announcement, “With VR technologies gaining traction and the Quest becoming a favorite product of many youth, parents and guardians will now have access to a suite of tools to safeguard and stay involved with their teen’s participation and experiences.”

In addition to the new virtual reality safety tools, Meta is expanding Instagram’s teen well-being resources. Parents will be able to set specific “quiet hours” during the day or week for their children’s use of the Internet, as well as view additional information on accounts and posts reported by monitored users. After a predetermined amount of time spent scrolling through the same content on the Explore Page, the application will prompt the user to switch topics. The alert, according to the company, is “designed to encourage teens to discover something new and excludes topics that may be associated with appearance comparison.” Instagram will also display “Take a Break” videos when a user has been scrolling through Instagram Reels for too long, similar to TikTok’s screen time notifications.

A few days prior to the release of the new parental controls in virtual reality, the law firm Beasley Allen filed eight lawsuits against Meta for allegedly failing to adequately protect children and “exploiting young people for profit.” It is the latest criticism leveled against the company for its apparent lack of concern for adolescent safety, following accusations last year that its social media platforms ignored concerns about teen mental health, which led to Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri testifying before Congress in 2021. The update was released on June 14.

How to Keep Kids Safe Online

After the release of Meta’s Horizon Worlds, a VR “creator space” for users to connect and build virtual worlds, and its new “safety-focused” features, users and researchers expressed concern that young users would still be exposed to unmoderated hate speech and harassment. Later, Meta added a “garbled voices” filter to Horizon Worlds that turned the voice chats of VR strangers into friendly, unintelligible noises, as well as a “personal boundary” feature to prevent harassment by uninvited users. In response to concerns that teens and children with unsupervised access were exposed to inappropriate virtual reality spaces, Metaverse announced in May new locking tools to block specific applications from a user’s Quest headset.

This is not Meta’s first or last attempt to make its apps and new technologies safer for children. Meta launched the Family Center for Instagram in March, which houses the app’s teen safety and parental monitoring tools, such as supervision dashboards where parents can monitor activity, followers, and frequently-interacted accounts. In partnership with outside organizations such as The Trevor Project, the center also provided educational resources for families on online safety. Recently, Instagram added the ability to filter out sensitive content, such as violent or sexually explicit posts.

In Meta Quest’s virtual reality world, a realm of almost horrifyingly diverse possibilities, these tools are of even greater concern. However, the user-centric tools have limitations in a space where even adults cannot escape harassment, prompting us to ask how businesses can repair the damage already done.

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