06:00 - Source: CNN
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Washington CNN  — 

Meta is forging ahead with plans to let teenagers onto its virtual reality app, Horizon Worlds, despite objections from lawmakers and civil society groups that the technology could have possible unintended consequences for mental health.

On Tuesday, the social media giant said children as young as 13 in Canada and the United States will gain access to Horizon Worlds for the first time in the coming weeks.

The app, which is already available to users above the age of 17, represents Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for a next-generation internet, where users can physically interact with each other in virtual spaces resembling real life.

“Now, teens will be able to explore immersive worlds, play games like Arena Clash and Giant Mini Paddle Golf, enjoy concerts and live comedy events, connect with others from around the world, and express themselves as they create their own virtual experiences,” Meta said in a blog post.

Zuckerberg has pushed to spend billions developing VR hardware and software, even as Meta has scaled back significantly in other parts of its business. Last year alone, the company spent nearly $16 billion in its Reality Labs segment and warned investors not to expect profitability from that unit anytime soon.

Tuesday’s expansion reflects Meta’s attempt to capture early adopters in a key demographic. But it immediately triggered criticism from lawmakers who had pleaded with the company to postpone its plan.

“Meta is despicably attempting to lure young teens to Horizon Worlds in an attempt to boost its failing platform,” said Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who last month, along with Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ed Markey, urged Zuckerberg to reconsider letting teens use the app.

Lawmakers have previously raised alarms about the impact of some of Meta’s other products, including Instagram, on younger users.

“Meta has a record of abject failure to protect children and teens, and yet again, this company has chosen to put young users at risk so that it can make more money,” Markey said, accusing Meta of “inviting digital disaster.”

“I’m calling on the company to reverse course and immediately abandon this policy change,” Markey added.

Those calls were echoed earlier this month by dozens of civil society groups who wrote in an open letter that Meta’s VR offerings could expose users to new privacy risks through the collection of biometric and other data; new forms of unfair and deceptive marketing; and abuse or bullying.

Meta said in its announcement that in opening up Horizon Worlds to teens, the company would provide protective guardrails, such as by using default settings to make teenage users’ profiles and activity less visible to other users and by applying content ratings to potentially mature virtual spaces. Meta added that its safety controls were developed with input from parents and online safety experts.

“I hope no one is assuming there is any inclination on our part to simply open the floodgates,” Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, told CNN during a recent tech demonstration at the company’s Washington offices. “Clearly we can’t do that. We have to build experiences which are tailored to the unique vulnerabilities of teens.”

Meta’s announcement Tuesday came as other US government officials said they were beefing up scrutiny of social media’s potential effects on mental health.

The Federal Trade Commission is “actively working” on hiring in-house psychologists to address concerns linking social media use to teen mental health harms, said Alvaro Bedoya, an FTC commissioner.

In recent weeks, members of the FTC have been consulting with public health officials and medical professionals to understand the available scientific evidence on the matter, Bedoya told lawmakers on a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee.

“There is evidence that some uses of social media do, in fact, hurt certain groups of teenagers and children,” Bedoya said, though he cautioned that there were important nuances and caveats in the research. “This is not some moral panic. There is a ‘there’ there.”