Virtual reality can improve our health and wellbeing.
This holiday season, virtual-reality headsets are likely to be at the top of many children's wish lists, but with many VR devices coming with age restrictions, is the technology safe for young people?
For ages 13+, the Oculus Rift and Samsung's Gear VR headsets recommended Is it safe to put kids in virtual reality headsets?, while Sony's recommendation is 12 years and up for its PlayStation VR. According to the firm, HTC's Vive not designed for kids, and HTC said we should not allow young kids to use the headset at all. And Google said that only under adult supervision should children use its relatively low-tech Cardboard headset.
For these age recommendations, companies have offered a brief explanation. What does science say, then? Not a lot, according to Marientina Gotsis, director of the Creative Media & Behavioral Health Center at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. [Photos: Virtual Reality in a Child's World Puts Adults]
"We do not have enough data on the safety of current VR technology for children," she told Live Science. "So, the sparsity of research data and what we know about neuroplasticity [the brain's ability to reorganize itself] and children does not make me comfortable to recommend what is available now as is."
In a 2014 study in rats, University of California researchers found that in virtual environments, neurons in a brain region associated with spatial learning behaved completely differently compared to real ones, with more than half of the neurons shutting down while in VR. It is unclear what this means for humans, but the researchers said it highlighted the need for more research on the long-term affects of VR.
Gotsis said VR could have an even bigger impact on children's developing brains. For mental and behavioral health research, her center uses entertainment technology, including VR. She has worked on children's VR applications, but only in highly controlled situations.
Is it safe to put kids in virtual reality headsets? "The brain is very plastic in young ages, and prolonged exposure with improperly fitted devices could incur damage," she said. "Children also may not understand how to communicate eyestrain and may lack reflexes to remove the devices if they find them uncomfortable."
This does not imply that VR is unsafe for children and can never be, she said, adding that the safety of VR varies depending on the device, type of content and time spent using it, and the individual child using it. [11 Facts that every parent should know about the brain of their baby]
Is it safe to put kids in virtual reality headsets? VR and eyesight.
The impact that VR technology could have on the eyes of children is one of the biggest concerns. Parents have long told kids that staring at a screen will make their eyes go square, but there is no evidence that long exposure to screen can cause permanent damage, the American Academy of Ophthalmology says.
But the so-called vergence-accommodation conflict is another issue with VR. Your eye first points the eyeballs, vergence, and then focuses the lenses, accommodation, on an object when you view the world normally, and then these two processes coupled to create a coherent picture.
The illusion of depth achieved by modern VR headsets by presenting a slightly different image on a flat screen to each eye. This means that the eyes remain focused on a fixed point, no matter how far away an object appears, but they converge on something in the virtual distance.
Some researchers believe that therefore some people experience symptoms when viewing 3D stimuli, such as TV and cinema, and headsets, "Some scientists believe this is the reason some people experience symptoms when viewing 3D stimuli — TV and cinema, and headsets,"
However, Howarth said there is good evidence to suggest that adverse effects such as headaches and eyestrain are likely to experience only by those with already weak eye movement and control. These symptoms are good indicators for children that these children need to have their eyes checked, so VR headsets can actually help catch current issues, he added.
Howarth said that they have done no academic studies to investigate the effects of VR on the eyes of children, as far as he knows, although it is possible that research in this area has done by VR headset manufacturers. My guess is that they're simply covering their backs so that they won't hold responsible if a kid develops a squint, "My guess is that they're simply covering their backs so that if a child develops a squint, it will not hold them responsible,"
Is it safe to put kids in virtual reality headsets? Lack of studies on vr.
The lack of research on the effects of VR on children is unlikely to improve, said Michael Madary, a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Mainz, Germany, who co-authored the first code of ethics on the use of VR in February.
"For obvious ethical reasons, it's very difficult to do research using children as subjects," he told Live Science. Madary studies the ethics of emerging technologies, incorporating psychology and neuroscience findings, and he believes that the biggest concern with VR is its impact on the psychological development of children.
"Children, at a young age, have difficulty distinguishing reality from fiction or fantasy," Madary said. "You could imagine putting them in VR — that inability to distinguish could exaggerated."
In VR, for example, content that might traumatic when seen in the cinema is likely to have an even greater impact. And VR could considerably exacerbate the negative effects of advertising and unsavory role models on TV, Madary added.
"In VR, you have an entire environment designed by someone who may want to manipulate you, whether it's for advertising, for political reasons, for religious reasons," he said. "If you have a child spending a long time immersed in a VR environment where manipulation is going on, it could have seen as a threat to their autonomy and what kind of adult they become."
And while VR has great potential, including for educational and therapeutic uses, Madary said producers need to collaborate with scientists to investigate the technology's long-term implications. He recommends, until then, to err on the side of caution.
I suspect that this is the most important factor if parents are doing a good job as parents, "I suspect that if parents are doing a good job as parents, that's the most important factor," "It's just exercising extreme caution and knowing that the experiments have not done, so you're experimenting on your kids."