More and more, children and adolescents are growing up online. Gone are the days when playing outside was the most popular form of entertainment. Time is now monopolized by tablets, smartphones and gaming consoles, with an increasing number of kids fixated on virtual worlds.
Virtual reality is a computer-generated immersive environment that can be similar to the real world. But most times VR is fantastical, creating an experience not possible in physical reality. With virtual reality equipment—usually headsets—the user can see around the artificial world, move around it, and interact with virtual features or items.
In a technology driven world, virtual reality games and devices are becoming common fixtures in many American homes today. Without extensive studies on how it will affect the physical and emotional well-being of children, parents and educators struggle with the possible effects of the new technology and how it affects their children.
While many parents have high hopes that the emerging technology will have educational benefits due to its highly engaging nature, a study conducted by Common Sense Media shows that 60% of parents worry about the health effects of virtual reality.
Early research on the impact of virtual reality airs on the side of caution regarding its use by young children. Stanford researchers partnered with Common Sense Media to perform extensive research on children’s media use, examining the impact of VR on children. The study found that virtual reality is likely to have a powerful impact on young children who may have a hard time separating VR fantasies from reality. On the positive side, it was found out that the vividness of virtual reality could be used as an effective teaching tool.
Stanford professor Jeremy Bailenson, one of the authors of the report, believed that since virtual reality is a very compelling medium, people can learn from it.
Gretchen Walkier, vice president of learning at San Jose’s Tech Museum, is of the opinion that technology can help children experiment. She believes that VR can give children a full body experience by letting them design an environment and have them walk through a 3-D model of it, making it a powerful tool for visual learning.
About 62% of parents who participated in the study believe that virtual reality can provide educational experiences but only 22% of them reported that their children actually use virtual reality for learning.
Despite the perceived educational benefits of virtual reality, and the fact that 70% of U.S. children are interested in VR, parents are having a hard time adopting the technology. Only 21% of households with children have a VR device and 13% have plans to get one.
Is it Time to Pause?
Parents are not comfortable with the idea of kids playing with something that could pose harm. Warnings about dizziness, nausea, headaches, and bumping into things are clearly not good for children and adolescents.
As it is, units are sold with warnings requiring a large space to move around. The VR units come with chaperone system for protection. Even for adults, this may be inadequate protection as the user is blind to the real world while he plays in VR. Without clearing space, the user is vulnerable to falling, tripping, hitting the head on something, and injuries to the arms and legs. It is necessary that someone is watching the user when he wears the VR headset.
Professor Bailenson who founded the Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab acknowledged that the long terms effects of virtual reality on the developing brains are not known yet but the short impacts could include dizziness, eyestrain, and headache.
Of particular concern is the increase in nearsightedness. A study showed that 40% of people in 2000 had myopia compared to only 25% in the 1970s. The use of tablets, laptops, cell phones, and now the VR devices contribute to the lengthening of the eye and potentially causes myopia. Motion sickness is another concern. There have been cases where using 3D glasses in watching 3D movies can trigger vertigo. Inadequate device resolution and processing power can also lead to nausea while using the VR devices.
Technically, VR is tricking the brain to think an object is far away, even if the screen is near the eyes. Therefore, there is a disconnect between the way the eye focuses and the perceived distance to the object. Essentially, it tricks the brain into thinking that the object is far. Scientists don’t know what effect this will have on the brain or the eyes.
When using cellphones, the user looks at the device for a minute or two and then gazes away from it. There is no long-term continuous use or staring at the device. In contrast, the user stares at the VR device for minutes at a time. Most devices advise that the user takes a 15-minute break from wearing the VR headset for every 30 minute of use. However, this advice does not have any scientific basis. Marientina Gotsis, Associate Professor of Research at the University of Southern California’s Interactive Media and Games Division says that the long term use may have cumulative effects which are still undiscovered. She says that eyestrain is a signal that something may be wrong and advises the user to stop playing.
Virtual Reality Explosion
Despite the reasons for pause, the International Data Corporation made a worldwide forecast that virtual reality and augmented reality spending will accelerate over the next several years, reaching a total of $143.3 billion in 2020. The current figures stand at $13.9 billion in 2017 compared to only $6.1 billion spent in 2016. The stats on the number of users below the age of 18 are inadequate. Manufacturers and vendors only count the number of units sold for both VR units and titles. Drilling down the information to the number of actual users and their age demographics would require an in-depth survey. However, there is evidence to show that there are a sizable number of users below the age of 18.
One important selling point for children’s use of VR technology is that it is immersive. As a teaching tool, children may start to believe that the experience truly happened. A 2017 study by Bailenson showed that virtual reality characters have a stronger effect on children than TV or computer game characters. A study of kids 4-6 years old playing a VR game found that they interacted with the in-game character like a friend, which was more interactive than the same character in the computer version of the game.
VR technology is here to stay. Its growing popularity means it may soon be integrated into how students are taught and learn. And while this innovative tech is certainly making a bold impact in gaming and entertainment, our society will certainly continue to watch how it affects brain development and overall good health.