Parents may overlook the privacy risks of virtual reality, study finds. Credit: Julia M Cameron

Parents Underestimate the Privacy Risks Kids Face in Virtual Reality

Parents aren’t that worried about their kids’ privacy in the metaverse. Here’s why that’s a problem.

While your child battles virtual dragons or plays simulated mini golf, for example, the cameras and sensors in their VR headset also collect data such as where their eyes are looking, the layout of the room they’re playing in, recordings of their voice and other sounds in the home, and their head and hand movements -- all of which can be used to infer dozens of other characteristics, including their age, gender, location, ethnicity and disability status.

“Prior research has shown that you can infer a lot of information from people's eye movements, even their political orientation and sexual preferences,” Emami-Naeini said.

What’s more, VR headsets share the information they collect with third parties such as advertisers for profit, she added.

And yet, most parents surveyed were generally unconcerned about threats to their children’s privacy in the virtual world. Indeed, about half said they had never thought about these issues with respect to VR before, arguing that the technology hasn’t taken off yet and doesn’t have the billions of users that other technologies have.

Nearly two thirds of parents of children aged 5-10 don’t understand the metaverse, according to the Institution of Engineering and Technology. Credit: Kampus Production

Instead, other concerns were more top of mind. Because VR goggles work inches from your eyes and block out real-world sights and noises, parents worry their kids could experience eye strain if they wear them for too long, or could hurt themselves because they can’t see where they’re swinging their arms and legs.

Parents were also wary of the fact that behind the computer graphics is a real-life person their children may not know, and who could potentially be dangerous.

Because they can’t easily see what’s happening on the screen like they can with other video games or control who their kids interact with, parents said they worried their child might be exposed to harassment, cyberbullying, or inappropriate content as a result of VR gaming.

“When they get on VR, in their head, they’re in a safe video game space,” one parent said. “They’re not thinking, ‘oh, that cartoon character could actually be a person who has ulterior motives like a stranger on a street.’”

Few parents in the survey had actually read the privacy policies of the VR devices their children used. And while they could name privacy risks when specifically asked, most parents were more worried about their child sharing too much about themselves with strangers than companies collecting and profiting from their children’s data.

“What we saw in this research is many of the parents did not really know how VR works,” Emami-Naeini said. “The kids were using VR, but not the parents.”

Nearly one in three American teens has a VR headset of their own. While most VR headsets aren’t recommended for children under 13, the families in the study weren’t waiting until the 13 age mark. Children as young as six were using the devices.

To better protect kids, the researchers say parents should try VR devices for themselves and familiarize themselves with the parental supervision features they offer.

“Designers of VR platforms definitely need to be more transparent about their security and privacy practices too,” Emami-Naeini said. “And this information should be presented in a more usable format so that parents understand.”

North Carolina State University assistant professor of computer science Anupam Das and Ph.D. student Abhinaya S B were also authors on this study.

First author Jiaxun “Jessie” Cao of Duke and Duke Kunshan University will present the team’s findings on May 21 at the 45th IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy in San Francisco.

This work was supported in part by Meta Research Award.

CITATION: “Understanding Parents’ Perceptions and Practices Toward Children’s Security and Privacy in Virtual Reality,” Jiaxun Cao, Abhinaya S B, Anupam Das and Pardis Emami-Naeini. 2024 IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy, May 20-23, 2024, San Francisco, California. DOI: 10.48550/arXiv.2403.06172