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VR has a lot of parents worried about its long-term effects

A new report looks at the very limited research on virtual reality and kids. For now, the impact is a pretty big mystery.

Group of children wearing virtual reality headsets
By the time the long-term effects of virtual reality are known, it may be too late for the first generations of users.
Getty Images

We know almost nothing about the long-term effects of virtual reality on kids, and that's got some parents worried.

In fact, 60 percent of parents say they're at least "somewhat concerned" their kids will face negative health effects from using the technology, according to a report released Wednesday by Stanford researchers and Common Sense Media.

The study, which includes a survey of 3,600 parents with at least one child under 18, examines the potential impacts -- both good and bad -- the technology can have on children. It found that parents are generally apprehensive about the virtual reality, especially given that there's been little research conducted on VR and child users.

"Kids are often an afterthought when it comes to research," said Michael Robb, director of research at Common Sense Media. "The research here is still pretty underdeveloped, which is a little concerning given how much more quickly VR is being adopted into American homes. There's a call to action for researchers to help better understand what both the short- and long-term effects are going to be on children, because right now it's like a big experiment in real time where we don't really know what's going to happen."

VR, a computer-generated simulation of a 3D environment, uses a headset to virtually transport viewers or allow them to interact with a setting in a seemingly realistic way. It's been used in gaming but has a variety of other applications, from helping people overcome phobias to distracting patients from painful procedures.

Still, VR has largely been seen as a gimmick, given the fact that the masses haven't really adopted the technology -- despite the backing of major players like Facebook, Samsung and Google. Sleeker, cheaper devices could start to change that. Greater affordability is also making it easier to conduct research about the technology's effects on health issues like neurological development.

"We just don't know that much about VR and kids," said Jeremy Bailenson, founder of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University and co-author of the new report. "The amount of studies that look at the cognitive development issues, you can count on one hand."

Expanding use

Uncertainty is by no means slowing down the spread of VR. One in five US parents said they live in a household with VR hardware, the study found, and 13 percent are planning to buy a VR device in the next year.

That means the majority of parents aren't planning to buy VR gear in the near future, but kids' interest remains high. According to a study last year, 70 percent of US children between 8 and 15 said they are "extremely" or "fairly" interested in experiencing VR. That desire will likely drive the purchase of VR devices according to the new report. In fact, two-thirds of parents in homes with VR said their kids had asked them to purchase a device.

Not surprisingly, a child's age is key to how parents feel about VR. Just 13 percent said VR is appropriate for kids under 7. By contrast, nearly half said VR is appropriate for kids under 13. That coincides with the age recommendation of VR devices such as the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift.

VR developers and researchers warn that more research needs to be done before the technology can be safely recommended for children, especially given the fact that development of the prefrontal cortex of the brain accelerates in middle childhood. That's linked with the development of a child's working memory, impulse control and cognitive flexibility -- or the ability to change perspective or approaches to a task.

This raises questions about how long-term VR use could affect a child's brain development and health. For example, the mismatch between focusing on images that appear to be far away but are actually on a screen just a few centimeters away can confuse the brain and cause eyestrain and headaches in the short term. The long-term effects are still unknown.  

Additionally, 70 percent of parents said they're concerned about sexual content, pornography and violent content in VR, 67 percent said they're concerned kids will spend too much time with VR and 61 worry the technology will lead to social isolation.

"Historically, there's been a pretty good pattern of parents having very similar concerns about new media technologies," Robb said. "The ongoing question that we have to address is: How different are the experiences of those things in VR versus other platforms? Given that kids may experience this content differently than they do TV or video games, we have to assess how accurate parents' perceptions are to be concerned in these ways about this specific kind of content."

Moderation is key

When it comes to regulating kids' use of VR, moderation is key, Bailenson said. Instead of hours of use, parents should think in terms of minutes.

"Most VR is meant to be done on the five- to 10-minute scale," Bailenson noted in the study.

VR is so immersive that children can have a hard time distinguishing which components of virtual events aren't real, the study said. That's why Bailenson advises parents not to let their kids do anything on VR that they wouldn't want them to experience in the real world, such as a war game.

That blurring of lines between virtual and real experiences also means characters in VR could have more influence on young children than do characters on TV or computers. Just like adults, kids are prone to respond to realistic virtual characters as they would to a real person, research suggests.

In one study last year, children between 4 and 6 were chosen to either interact with Grover from Sesame Street in VR or on a two-dimensional screen. Those who used VR were more likely to treat Grover as a friend, shown by the fact that they shared more stickers with him and demonstrated other measures of friendship.

Educational gains

This can have significant implications for education, Robb said.

"The fact that VR characters are even more present, perhaps more interactive, means that children are ready to learn even more from a VR character than they might be even from a traditional screen," he said, "because their interaction with Elmo or whoever is going to be that much more intense."

VR has been shown to facilitate learning of concepts such as fractions, plant growth and other standards-based math and science. Sixty-two percent of parents surveyed said they believe VR will enhance educational experiences for their children. That number jumps to 84 percent for parents of 8- to 17-year-olds who already use VR.

"Once you're an owner, you become a little bit more of a believer," Robb said.

Although students are also more enthusiastic about learning with VR, research has found that they don't necessarily learn more through VR than through video or computer games. For example, in one study, a group presented with a botany lesson in VR had the same learning outcomes as a group assigned the lesson on a computer.

The result could be due to the fact that kids are so captivated by the sensory experience that they don't focus enough on the narrative information.

Long-term impact

Research has shown that embodying an avatar in VR can increase an adult's empathy toward people who are different from them, reducing issues like implicit racial bias and evoking empathy for people with colorblindness.

But VR's potential to encourage empathy among younger children could be difficult, given they're still developing the ability to take perspectives and understand that others may think and feel differently than they do. In fact, only 38 percent of parents think VR can help children empathize with those who are different from them.

"It may be the case that embodied avatar experiences might not be as effective until children develop skills in social perspective-taking," the study states.

The long-term effects -- both positive and negative -- remain unknown. 

"We have just scratched the surface," Bailenson said. "We have almost no data, and we need data quickly."

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