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Preserving Childhood by Design: Ethics for Metaverse Content Creators

Having recently written my dissertation on how we could create an online-offline balance with children's media, I was intrigued by two recent news stories: Epic raising $2B for a kid-friendly metaverse, and Labster raising $47m to build the eduverse. With such large $ value being put into the design of a supposedly safe and kid friendly metaverse, I thought about the subtleties of early childhood education that slip through the cracks of sensational news. As children's media veteran David Kleeman points out - we don't even have a functional metaverse yet, perhaps only proto-metaverses like Roblox and Minecraft that are standalone and not connected. 

So all the talk about a kid-friendly metaverse as of now, is not rooted in research, is not proven safe, and is only an educated guess based on adjacent research. This is why content creators who plan on developing children's media for the metaverse, should start thinking about ethics and best practices. What would it really take to create a safe, kid-friendly metaverse?

Nina Jane Patel rightly pointed out in her recent article "it takes a village to raise a child, even in the metaverse" -how ensuring children's wellbeing in the metaverse is a collaborative effort by parents, caregivers, educators, and creators. She also highlights that most gaming industry research remains biased and challenged. 

This may sound pessimistic, but as a parent and a researcher I find it more reassuring to be very skeptical of new technologies until I've tried them and made some observations first-hand. There are no absolutes - it would be a missed opportunity to think all content creators are in it for the money and nobody cares about children. It would also be dangerous to assume everyone creating content for children in the metaverse is genuinely in it for the wellbeing of children. 

So what can we do to make sure that as children's metaverse is developed and defined more, it is safe and kid friendly? Here are some ideas:

Contents of the Content

What should metaverse content for children be? According to a recent policy brief A whole new world: Education meets the metaverse by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and colleagues, metaverse content should follow some of the basic rules from Web 2.0 that are still very relevant:

  • design content that makes learning active or "minds-on" instead of passive/click-bait-y
  • content should be engaging instead of distracting
  • content should be integrated in the format such as a narrative, game, lesson, storyline
  • content should be meaningful for the child, make it relatable for them
  • content should encourage social interaction and collaboration within and beyond the metaverse
  • content should be iterative, offer multiple ways to reach a goal
  • content should have a well articulated goal
  • content should allow opportunities to be creative and innovative
  • content should offer opportunities to apply critical thinking

Ratings and Reviews

Metaverse content should be rated and reviewed with the same level of scrutiny that is applied to other forms of children's media, such as game ratings by ESRB or age-based media reviews by Common Sense Media. It would also help for academics to question various aspects of the metaverse (average time spent, support in understanding of a topic, fatigue or other symptoms, etc.) and design creative studies that test and challenge the utility of what's peddled as "educational".

What's the purpose?

Do we need a metaverse experience for something that can be easily achieved in the real world? No! A key ethic is designing metaverse experiences that have a specific and helpful purpose that make use of features such as a 360 view, connected experience with other worlds and users, or creating something that can only be experienced the meta way. For example, traveling back in time as part of a history lesson, safely performing a chemistry experiment virtually, exploring the space-time-continuum in Cosmos-style, designing impossible geometries, etc.


Just like fast food and judgmental aunties, technology can only be good in moderation. The excess of anything doesn't end well, and children's engagement with the metaverse can also use good old moderation. "Netflix and chill" is fine in moderation, but "nothing but Netflix" is a cry for therapy. Metaverse content creators should consider building-in a navigation and time system that helps children explore places within the metaverse more easily (minimizing time in wayfinding) and being reminded of the time spent in metaverse, encouraging breaks. Not all content creators would even consider a time-limiting experience (because metaverse time could act as currency, more eyeballs = more income for creators and advertisers), so caregivers and educators will continue to be the voice of reason and help children understand what moderation looks like. It's counterintuitive to design something not meant to be binge-worthy, but it's an ethical dilemma that can be creatively addressed.

Transmedia Making

Transmedia Making = media as inspiration for maker activities. It's a fun way to moderate children's time spent with screens and encourage them to go offline.

My goal for this line of research is to explore how media itself can act as encouragement to go offline, and the experience of being connected digitally can be extended to real-world activities. While my research currently studies children's television media and follow-up DIY activities, it is possible to apply a similar philosophy in the metaverse. For example, in a metaverse experience children could explore what would life be like if our carbon footprint continues to grow, practice the actions that it would take to reduce the carbon footprint, and then repeat those action in the real world. If you are a content creator looking for ways to create games that could impact real life, check out this helpful playbook by International Game Developers Association's Climate SIG.

Exploration, Creativity, and Free Play

Children are curious by nature, and one way to preserve this natural tendency in a metaverse is to continue providing opportunities to explore worlds, build things, be creative, and play freely. While having rule-based games has its advantages, it also helps to create open-ended metaverse experiences that allow safe ways to be creative, such as the creative mode on Minecraft (although currently it's hard to imagine what this proto-metaverse would look like in it's connected form).

Behind the scenes

Three questions we should ask on our metaverse skeptic journey: Who's paying for the children's media content creation? How do they plan to get enough returns on their investment? How do they plan to prioritize their values towards childhood, if they have any?

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon this post by Gary Pope, where he called out big corps for investing billions in the metaverse at a time when a fraction of the same amount can help children in the real world. That made me think, news from behind the scenes of metaverse (who is investing in what) says a lot about where the creators' values are. Any company that is valuing a kid-friendly metaverse at $32B will try to get its valuation's worth in revenue. And how do we know for sure if ethics will continue to stay a top priority when the eagerness to satisfy investors first is pretty common? On the other hand, I would like to give these big corps the benefit of the doubt. The willingness to be profitable doesn't always mean the intentions are evil, one doesn't have to be poor to be woke. So maybe, one advantage of partnerships like these is that when metaverse gets more defined and available for children, at least some creators will offer safer options than the other unfiltered trash that might end up being available. 

I would still rather depend on the moderation by caregivers and educators the most, and not on the woke agenda of corps, whether it's metaverse, or any other form of children's media.


Another ethic creators should consider is to turn off autoplay by default. Offer children the breathing room to exit the metaverse and process what they just experienced.

Algorithmic recommendations

Algorithms cannot replace caregiver vigilance, and accidentally many irrelevant and harmful recommendations can be made available to children including violence, racism, pornography, and fake news. Train recommender algorithms to learn better, such as by adding viewer age, taking a closer look at filters, and making sure there are parental locks on any adult content by default.

Location tracking

Stranger danger! Creators should make sure location tracking/ GPS is off by default and give the caregiver/educator the option to switch it on only when it serves a safe purpose - such as collaboration in real-time with others on the school or family network.

Anonymity and Accountability

While it's easy to be anonymous online and get away with bullying or other worse experiences, creators should try to build in more accountability. Such as, adding reviewers for community posts, or ways to track and report any unethical behaviors.

The child as an individual

All the ethical expectations from content creators aside, ultimately the caregivers and educators know what's best for the child as an individual. Each child has a unique personality, fears and concerns, triggers, preferred ways of learning, motivations that work for them, activities they find more engaging than others. At the individual level, even recommender algorithms can fail. Knowing the child as an individual is a serious and long-term commitment that cannot be outsourced to an algorithm. As a content creator you could seek out caregivers and educators to offer helpful insights for relevant curation of content.

Educating the educators and caregivers

Another role creators could play is to offer resources to educators and caregivers. Children can be more comfortable in learning new technologies and it's easy for the adults to feel out of touch. This lack of understanding of the technology makes it harder for caregivers and educators to play their part in curating and moderating content at the individual level. Any resource websites, tutorials, workshops, or ways in which caregivers and educators can learn about the metaverse themselves, and even better, jointly engage with children - can help build the right ecosystem for children's safety in the metaverse. Once the adults understand the metaverse more closely, they can support children better in recognizing and following healthy boundaries.


Get early input from children, caregivers, researchers, educators and subject matter experts. Put their best ideas into action, empower the right people in the content creation process. This is the most important ethic of all - choose wisely whose voices you amplify in the content creation process. Use the voices of those who will use the metaverse, and those who are going to be partners in children's long-term wellbeing.

This shall pass, too

This discussion of ethics around children's media is not new. Replace metaverse with any technology or technology-based idea when it was brand new. Everyone is rightfully skeptical in the beginning. As a geriatric millennial, I can vouch for the legit fear of the internet when it was first introduced. My grandfather describes how his mom was terrified when televisions were introduced. My great-grandmother described a similar concern about the radio when her mom would say "you'll go deaf listening to so much radio". And here we are today - kids' podcasts are having a sort of radio-comeback moment - and parents would rather have their kids listen to a good podcast while playing with LEGO than strap a VR headset to their heads and watch them float around with flailing arms like zombies.

Maybe, it is just our natural resistance to anything new, and maybe, we are preparing for safety by being extremely skeptical about the metaverse.

While we don't fully know what exactly children's metaverse will look like, many experts have imagined what it might look like based on experiences from adjacent technologies in the past. The optimists imagine a children's metaverse which is balanced, where children explore ideas for a brief time and then return to reality with more positivity. The skeptics wonder if the metaverse would a be hideout for hideous activities that the caregivers won't be able to moderate and advise on. We need everyone: the optimists and skeptics, the academics and the industrialists, the caregivers and the educators, the creators and the reviewers - to grow the metaverse into a safe space for children.