Last month, this column explored the limitations of virtual reality in the classroom. One concern bears closer examination: Is VR safe for kids? At the South by Southwest (SXSW) and SXSWedu conferences in March, several speakers and panelists brought up the issue as well. Evidently, the risks of VR, especially for children, are weighing on many people’s minds. So let’s dive in and see what’s really going on.
All the VR headset manufacturers include safety warnings for their devices, mostly describing vague warnings about headset size, eye development, and young children.
For example, Oculus Rift’s safety warning says the headset should not be used by children under age 13 because it “is not sized for children and improper sizing can lead to discomfort or health effects.” Further, “younger children are in a critical period in visual development,” meaning that perhaps the device could impair development. The HTC Vive User Manual has a similar warning. HTC doesn’t specify an age requirement, but they do say it “was not designed to be used by children.” The manual recommends monitoring older children for “negative effects” while using the Vive. The Google Daydream View Health and Safety Information says simply and concisely that “Daydream View should not be used by children under the age of 13,” and the Google Cardboard Product Safety Information page says, “Cardboard is not for use by children without adult supervision.” The PlayStation VR Health Warnings set the age requirement at 12, slightly lower than the others for unknown reasons, and state: “The vision of young children (especially those under six years old) is still under development.”
Are these companies just playing it safe to avoid potential liability down the road? As in, “It’s horrible that millions of children used VR and subsequently had their eyeballs fall right out of their heads. Even though we’ve marketed extensively to kids for years, we told you not to do it. It’s right there in the safety warnings. Good luck trying to sue us!” That explanation sounds reasonable, in an unreasonable way, but do these manufacturers know something we don’t? Are these headsets actually dangerous for children?
At a SXSW panel in March, VR industry pioneer Nonny de la Peña said she called up Oculus, HTC, and PlayStation to ask them about the child safety issue directly. All three companies swore that it was purely a head strap sizing issue. Props to her for making those calls, but of course they told her that. They wouldn’t publicly admit to real dangers while simultaneously selling millions of headsets. Regardless, if sizing really were the only issue, how hard would it be to make a smaller device or strap so they could sell millions more headsets targeted at small-headed kids?
In truth, no one really knows whether VR impairs vision development in children, because no peer-reviewed, long-term studies have been completed on this topic yet. The jury is officially still out.
What would you do?
Anecdotally, a friend of mine, who will remain anonymous, founded a VR game development company, and he lets his daughter, who is under age 13, play games on VR headsets all the time with no noticeable adverse effects. Like most people, she only plays a few minutes at a time, rarely more than an hour straight, and certainly not every day. My friend has a hard time believing that this moderate usage could hurt her, and I wholeheartedly agree with him.
I don’t have children, but if I did, I would absolutely let my kids use VR before turning 12 or 13. In fact, I already encourage my young niece and nephew to use VR—with a caveat. I’d encourage my niece, nephew, and hypothetical children to wear a VR headset only as much as I’d let them use a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or other gadget with a screen. Staring at screens for extended periods isn’t good for anyone’s eyes, kids included.
I’m 40 and am lucky enough to have better than 20/20 eyesight. Even my vision gets a little blurry if I stare at screens for too long, as I’m doing right at this moment. Taking short eye breaks every few minutes reduces eye strain considerably. I’ll bet you a dollar to a virtual dollar—again, without scientific proof to back me up—that even though VR screens are positioned physically much closer to the eyes than smartphone, tablet, and laptop screens, limiting the duration of VR sessions and taking frequent breaks will dramatically reduce the risk of eye strain and diminish negative effects on eye development in children.
Should we, in fact, limit the amount of time kids use VR in order to protect their eyes? Yes. Should we limit the amount of time kids stare at other kinds of screens every day? Yes. Is anyone too worried about these other screens damaging kids’ eyes? No. (Actually, yes, but because these other technologies are already so ingrained in our lives and the economy, the likelihood of keeping children away from all screens seems impossibly far-fetched.) Are there more important issues to worry about than the adverse effects of eye strain on children’s eyes? Absolutely.
Besides the sizing and vision issues, another concern is that VR could physically change our brains, which could potentially be bad for children’s brains that are still developing. Once again, no research has yet proven anything here, though it’s quite likely that extensive VR use will change our brain composition. But is this good, bad, or neither? Who knows? Using smartphones changes brain composition, as does playing chess, hammering nails, participating in team sports, and everything else we do, if we do it enough.
Much research needs to be done to say for certain whether these likely-but-unproven physiological changes have adverse, long-term effects. However, I personally won’t refrain from participating in enjoyable and potentially beneficial activities simply because they could change my brain composition. Potential updates to my ever-changing brain composition rank near the bottom of the list of factors influencing my daily actions. Seems like a non-issue to me, right up there with avoiding looking at screens so my eyes don’t get bleary.
Potential brain changes and eye strain aren’t keeping me from writing this column on my tablet, and I’m not convinced they should. So what if my brain and eyes change as a result of the modern-day omnipresence of screens, VR headsets included? Maybe that’s simply my body adapting to a new world.
Admittedly, that’s my own, semi-informed, freely chosen decision. What about children? Should VR be used in the classroom if it potentially poses unknown risks to children? There’s no clear answer, especially for younger kids, but I say go for it. Everything we do in life has at least some risk, and VR is no exception. If VR is used with sufficient caution and intention, the rewards—which I’ve discussed at length in prior columns—can far outweigh the risks.
Stay tuned for next month’s “Metafocus” column that will explore ethics in VR games. Immersive games (such as those played in VR) can strongly impact emotional and psychological development in children, thus factoring into the discussion about safety and VR, but the topics of safety and ethics are too big to adequately cover in a single article.