VR may offer benefits for children, but most parents don't want to bother with it

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Virtual reality technology holds promise as an educational tool for children’s cognitive and emotional development, but parents have some concerns about potential side effects.

That’s the top-line conclusion of a new report by Common Sense, a nonprofit dedicated to helping kids thrive in today’s media- and tech-oriented world. The report is based on a survey of more than 12,000 adults, more than a quarter of whom have at least one child under 18.

“What’s unique about VR is the intensity of the experiences it mediates,” said Jim Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense, in the introduction to the report. “As a result, many educators are excited about the potential for VR to encourage prosocial behavior among younger children, and 62 percent of parents believe that VR will enhance educational experiences for their kids.”

VR is not anywhere near ubiquitous in either classrooms or homes. The report found that just 1 in 5 parents said their household has VR, while 65 percent of parents say they are not planning to buy a VR device. A survey released by Speak Up 2016 a year ago found that only 5 percent of teachers nationwide were using either VR or augmented reality (AR) devices. (VR typically involves fully immersive content, while AR tends to provide a visual overlay to the user’s current environment.)

It is because VR is still rare that Common Sense wants to understand the pitfalls as well as the benefits of this new technology. “There is still a lot to learn about VR, and we have a responsibility to parents and educators to understand how it impacts child development so they can minimize the potentially negative effects while maximizing the positives,” Steyer wrote.

The report’s key findings:

  • VR is likely to have powerful effects on children because it can provoke a response to virtual experiences similar to the response to actual experiences.
  • The long-term effects of children’s use of immersive VR on their still-developing brains and health are unknown; 60 percent of parents say they are at least “somewhat concerned” about the potential for negative health effects.
  • Children are much more interested in experiencing VR — 70 percent are extremely or fairly interested — than their parents. At 56 percent, the main reason adults provided for not using VR is a lack of interest, followed by unfamiliarity with it, cost and health concerns.
  • Characters in VR may be especially influential on young children, which means parents need to be aware of the powerful influence of media characters and choose their children’s interactions with them carefully.
  • Students often feel more enthusiastic about learning while using VR, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into learning more than through video or computer games.

As for health effects, some parent participants reported their kids already are experiencing health issues, including 13 percent who have bumped into something, 11 percent who have gotten dizzy, 10 percent who got headaches and 8 percent who suffered eyestrain.

The report offered suggestions for parents considering VR use in their homes. Most basically, when they are choosing VR content, parents should consider whether they would want their children to have those experiences in the real world. For example, if first-person shooter games in VR are more “immersive” than their video equivalents, parents should ask if that is an experience they want for their child.

“For children, moderation should prevail,” according to Jeremy Bailenson, head of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, in the introduction. “Instead of hours of use, which might apply to other screens, think in terms of minutes … And think about safety. By definition, VR blocks out the real world. Watch your children around sharp edges, pets, and walls.”

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