The question’s been around for some time, but parents tend to be all too blase about it. At least that’s the impression you get when you see how little online debate there is about it.
There’s massive hype around the technology itself. But the effect of VR on children doesn’t even seem like it’s an issue at all. We’re always hearing about some new breakthrough in the technology - much of it pure vaporware - but when was the last time you heard any serious, adult, discussion on the child safety aspect of VR?
The Oculus Rift manual actually warns users of all ages that “prolonged use should be avoided, as this could negatively impact hand-eye coordination, balance and multi-tasking ability.” More specifically, regarding children, the Oculus Rift (now owned by Facebook) has a 13+ age rating - which is consistent with Facebook’s 13+ membership requirement.
Sony’s Playstation VR is rated 12+, while Samsung’s Gear VR matches the Oculus 13+ rating. The HTC Vive doesn’t specify an age limit, which might explain why the Vive was singled out for some harsh comments in an article by Sandee LaMotte, on the CNN website, covered by us on 15 December last year. In fairness, HTC gives a general warning against allowing young children to use the headset.
Whose going to police it?
But who’s going to enforce these restrictions? The hardware companies can’t. Nor would they even want to. Children may not have autonomous spending power (the X factor of the business world), but they have nag power (the Y factor - as in “why won’t you buy it for me?). That makes them great customers!
The legislators? Forget it. Money buys votes. And politicians these days are always thinking about life after politics. That usually means lucrative consultancies with the private sector. But you can’t piss people off and then expect them to offer you a job. So politicians are in no hurry to pass the kind of laws that’ll alienate big business!
Of course, there are laws about selling certain video games to children - at least in some jurisdictions. Even politicians can’t stand up to the might of outraged, self-styled “moral crusaders!” But these rules and regulations don’t apply to the hardware. Ultimately it is up to parents to set their own standards and police them. What the makers offer is no more than advice.
But is the advice backed up by solid research? Or did they just lick their index finger and hold it up to the wind? And what is the motive behind the advice? To help parents make an informed decision? Or to cover their corporate asses against legal action? Let’s fact it, the west is becoming increasingly litigious (following guess-who’s lead). And while rich, powerful corporations can defend themselves against lawsuits and large payouts, it helps to create a built-in defense, to nip any cause of action in the bud!
What the academics say...
According to Martin Banks, Professor of Optometry, Vision Science, Psychology, and Neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley “So far I’ve seen no so-called smoking gun, no concrete evidence that a child of a certain age was somehow adversely affected by wearing a VR headset. My guess is that all they’re doing is saying that kids are developing and development slows down when they reach adolescence, and so let’s just play it safe and say that while these kids are undergoing significant development, we’ll advise people not to let them use it.”
That’s what Professor Banks says, wearing his psychology hat. However, wearing his optometry hat, he sounds a different tune “There is pretty good evidence, particularly among children, that if you do so-called near work, where you’re looking at something up close, like reading a book up very close or looking at a cellphone, that it causes the eye to lengthen and that causes the eye to become near-sighted.”
Indeed a study published in Jama Opthalmology (Increased Prevalence of Myopia in the United States Between 1971-1972 and 1999-2004, Susan Vitale, PhD, MHS; Robert D. Sperduto, MD; Frederick L. Ferris III, MD) found a statistically significant increase in myopia (near-sightedness), stating in their conclusion:
When using similar methods for each period, the prevalence of myopia in the United States appears to be substantially higher in 1999-2004 than 30 years earlier. Identifying modifiable risk factors for myopia could lead to the development of cost-effective interventional strategies.
They went on to state:
In the earliest report from a nationally representative sample of the US population, the prevalence of myopia was estimated to be 25% in persons aged 12 to 54 years. Recently, several studies have documented an increased prevalence of myopia in younger birth cohorts,suggesting that environmental risk factors for myopia may have become more prevalent. In particular, studies in Asian populations have reported epidemics of myopia in younger generations, possibly attributed to the near-work demands imposed by more intensive education.
In other words, activities like working with computers, as distinct from, say, looking at a blackboard or whiteboard as in the old days of education. And with a VR headset, one is looking at something even nearer - which might suggest that near-eye headsets are even more of a problem. However, it isn’t quite as simple as that, Professor Banks explains:
Let’s contrast a kid using a VR headset compared to a kid using a smartphone. When they use the smartphone they typically hold it very close to them and so they have to focus their eye close. You might think that with the VR headset they’d have to do the same thing because the image is close to the eye, but they have optics in the setup that make the stimulus effectively far away. So, in terms of where the eye has to focus, you have to actually focus fairly far away to sharpen the image in the headset.
Professor Peter Howarth, a senior lecturer in Optometry doesn’t believe that VR adversely affects a child’s eyesight. After all, the principle of VR is to provide different eye view to facilitate stereopsis (3D vision and perception of depth of field). Howarth even argues that the makers of near-eye stereoscopic headsets could actually provide software to test for vision problems.
But what about other problems? Like dizziness and motion sickness.
Problems arise when what you see with your eyes doesn’t match what you feel with your body. If the visual image tells you that you’re moving forward fast, but your body tells you that you’re stationary, it has a disconcerting effect. If your eyes tell you that you are spinning, but your semi-circular canals tell you that you aren’t, you might feel dizzy. But this applies to adults as much as children if not more so. In fact, children are very often more resilient.
Then of course, there’s the danger of playing VR games and moving around a room in which there are solid objects. And the risk is even greater if the headset is tethered to a computer. Of course, this risk also applies to adults. And the major players (Vive and Rift) offer built-in warning systems to map out the area and warn the player if they’re in danger of stepping out of the safety zone. But what if a child innocently strays into the safety zone while big brother is battling with zombies? Tommy Toddler may not be aware of the danger, while Terry Teenager is too wrapped up in a world of his own to notice, and remains totally oblivious to Tommy’s presence until impact!
You get the picture.
But what about the long-term effect of VR on the development of the child’s brain? This is the Great Zone of Ignorance. We have centuries of experience regarding the impact of the printed word and stage drama. We have decades of information about the effects of cinema, radio and television. Heck, we’ve had 30-40 years to learn about the impact of personal computers!
But VR is different. And even mobile phones and social media have been identified as weapons of mass distraction! There is already evidence that instant on-the-go access to information and remote contact with friends is affecting the developing brains of teenagers in terms of their expectations. And it also affects their mood when they find themselves deprived of those expectations.
VR is even more of a game changer. And children are even more in a stage of susceptibility to the environmental factors that shape them for life.
But it’s a hard area to study for two reasons. Firstly, VR is newer and has yet to achieve anything like the market penetration of the smartphone. (It is questionable if it ever will.) Secondly, it would take a formal study many decades to accumulate and evaluate the information. And how will one hold constant for other factors? Most academic studies require a control group that is not subject to the stimuli or causal factors that are being tested. But where is such a control group to be found? The Third World? The Amish? Children with strict parents?
Clearly then, the only thing we know about the effects of VR on children is that we know every little. So maybe it is better to err on the side of caution and keep the VR headsets away from children. Let them explore the real world first - something that millennia of evolution has primed them for - and then when they understand reality, let them play with its alternatives inside a little electronic box!