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With more than 10 million virtual reality systems already in homes across North America, there's a good chance that if your kids haven't experienced this new technology yet, they will soon. And when they try it, they're likely to love it. "The illusion of VR is more effective on young children than on adults," says Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab.
But parents are wary. According to a new report by Bailenson and his team for Common Sense Media, which is based on two decades of experience researching the effects of virtual reality and is supplemented by the results of a survey probing parents' perception of the technology, 60 percent of parents are at least "somewhat concerned" that their kids might experience negative health effects while using virtual reality. Thirteen percent of parents believe that the technology is not appropriate for kids under seven.
But are these parents' concerns valid? Are virtual reality games safe for kids? The groundbreaking report suggests the technology may offer some benefits—but there are definitely potential pitfalls to watch for.
Even very young children tend to enjoy virtual reality games. One of the experiments referenced in the report involves four- to six-year-olds who were given a chance to meet Grover from Sesame Street in virtual reality. According to the report, the vast majority of the hundreds of kids involved in the Grover experiment enjoyed it. And so far, none of the parents have reported that their kids have suffered any ill effects from the experience.
And VR is not just for entertainment. The immersive power of virtual reality is being put to use in a variety of constructive ways. It can be employed to help teach kids empathy in taking the perspectives of other people, it can make them more interested in learning, and it can promote positive social behaviours.
But on the flip side, it could also make scary scenes in entertainment media even more intense, or encourage negative behaviours if the virtual characters with whom kids interact are up to no good.
Virtual reality's sensory immersion combined with the user's ability to use natural gestures to interact with characters and objects provokes a response analogous to what we feel when experiencing similar situations in the real world—and this is especially true for kids. In the Grover experiment, kids met the furry blue character both in virtual reality and on a traditional two-dimensional screen. Kids who met him in VR were much more likely to act as though Grover was real and interact with him as a friend by sharing stickers. "The effects of VR tend to be magnified compared to those of traditional media such as television," says Bailenson.
That's why the report recommends that if you don't want your kid to experience something in the real world, don't let them experience it in virtual reality.
The report also digs into how the technology might affect children's neurological development, and it starts by acknowledging that there isn't enough data about its long-term effects to be able to definitively say what impact it might have. "The truth is, when it comes to VR and kids, we just don’t know all that much," says Bailenson.
The study explains that the development of the prefrontal cortex accelerates through middle childhood, and that no conclusive studies have yet been conducted into how virtual reality—which tricks users' brains into thinking that objects on a screen mere centimetres from their eyes are actually far away—might impact this development over the long term.
That said, with the judicious application of a little common sense to govern how kids use virtual reality, the study's authors say you probably don't have much to worry about. "For children, moderation should prevail," says Bailenson. "Instead of hours of use, which might apply to other screens, think in terms of minutes. Most VR is meant to be done on the five- to 10-minute scale.
"It seems with VR," says Bailenson, "a little bit goes a long way."