The New VR Arms Race: Kids vs Parents

Kids are gonna have cybersex, and parents won’t like that

General-purpose VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are so expensive and fragile that we haven’t yet had to worry about how it’ll affect kids. VR is still like the PalmPilot PDA in 1997, an expensive curiosity for just a million enthusiasts. It has plenty of promise, but it’s not something that decent people have a productive use for.

But just as the PalmPilot evolved into the iPhone and Android and inhabited billions of pockets around the world, so will bulky, pricy VR headsets inevitably evolve into lightweight and cheap glasses or goggles owned by more or less everyone — including kids.

I had a Handspring Visor at school. Contrary to my expectations, it did not make me cool.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how parents will supervise their children and teenagers in VR. Much depends on how the VR ecosystem pans out: will it become a walled garden like the iTunes App Store, with porn and hate apps completely banned, or will most headsets run a more open operating system where you can install any app you like?

Either way, we’re likely to see new kinds of surveillance tools that allow parents to monitor and manage the VR apps their children use. These tools may also be able to see which kinds of environments they traverse and even identify the types of behaviour they engage in. After all, you don’t need to use a porn app to have cybersex, you can do it pretty much anywhere you like. I expect kids will have AI chaperones to make sure they don’t get up to any funny business in supposedly safe areas.

This will be predictably infuriating for kids, who will easily discover all sorts of workarounds given their unlimited time and infinite desires. They’ll probably set up multiple VR accounts, or use their own AIs to pretend to be them, or jailbreak their VR hardware so they can run ‘unapproved’ software.

I find all of this fascinating. It’s hard enough for parents to know what their kids are doing on their smartphones and tablets as it is, and while many parents claim to look at their kids text messages and apps, and know their email and social media passwords, I wonder quite how well that works when it’s easy for kids to multiple phones and email accounts. Even Disney’s Circle monitor is powerless in the face of cellular data access [Update: apparently they can control cellular data, see comments]

But with VR, you can’t just peer over your kids’ shoulder; it’s completely closed off. Yes, there will be easy ways to view your kid’s point of view in VR (which is disturbing in itself), but you can’t do that all the time; and believe me, your kid will be in VR all the time. So I really do think that parents will be relying on AI agents to monitor their children and notify them when something unusual is happening.

Thankfully for parents, we have a few years until VR gets cheap and good enough to become truly widespread. Maybe even five years. And then all bets are off.

One Reply to “The New VR Arms Race: Kids vs Parents”

  1. I wonder whether we should worry at all. Doesn’t this take us back a few decades, to a time when kids would leave the house in the morning and return at tea-time, but could be anywhere doing anything with friends? No CCTV, no mobile ‘phones, no communication or means of spying on them by their parents. Parents today feel a huge need to know everything about their children, but actually they don’t need to. I rather think that the Swallows & Amazons or The Famous Five would be ruined by the presence of mobiles, with parents ringing to check in at inopportune times…

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