Is it Going To Be A Virtual Reality (VR) Christmas?
As the Metaverse develops, so does the popularity of VR headsets such as the Oculus Rift (Meta Quest 2), HTC Vive, Sony PlayStation VR, Samsung Gear VR, HP Reverb G2, Valve Index, and Google Cardboard. Given this fact, these VR systems will likely be popular gifts under the tree this Christmas season.
Given the increasing popularity of VR, which was developed for adult use, questions are now being asked about its emotional, psychological, physical, and social safety when it comes to a youth’s engagement with this technology. Presently, there is very little research specific to the contraindications to a youth’s use of VR. However, we do know that it has had some positive outcomes with adults, outside of gaming, specific to its therapeutic and rehabilitation use such as:
- Treating PTSD (1)
- Treating nightmares (2)
- Treating chronic pain (3)
- Helping those with Autism (4)
Given that good evidence-based research surrounding a youth’s use of VR is sparse, what are some of the identified concerns that we presently know about and should be aware of as parents and caregivers to its use:
#1: Eye Strain
According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), staring continuously at a screen, including a VR headset, without frequent breaks can result in a user to blink less, which can lead to the front surfaces of the eye to dry out and increase eye fatigue. This is why adopting the AAO 20,20,20 rule is important – every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break from a screen (including a VR headset), and purposely blinking 20 times will help to prevent dry eye and eye fatigue. On a positive note, the most current research does not show that the use of screens, including VR headsets causes damage to the eye (5)
A common occurrence when using VR – a sense of nausea (motion sickness) that can be experienced by some, even after a short VR session. Why does this happen, according to Dr. Hilary Hawkins “The balance centers in your inner ear perceive something different than reality” (6)
#3: Access to Hypersexualization and Pornography
The porn industry is presently spending hundreds of millions of dollars in research and development of VR into their industry. Why? – they believe that this will be the next frontier to making billions of dollars of profit from porn. In fact, research has found:
“viewing pornographic video material via VR technology had a stronger effect on psychophysiological reactions as well as subjective experience than using the conventional desktop display. It thus appears that experiencing pornographic video stimuli in high-immersive virtual environments increases the experience of presence as well as sexual-related perception.” (7)
There have also been a number of anecdotal reports of youth being sexually harassed and even sexually groped virtually in some popular VR gaming platforms (8)(9)
#4: Neck Strain
Given the size and weight of some VR headsets, there have been a large number of anecdotal reports of neck pain associated with the use of VR headsets. These anecdotal reports are supported by a 2020 study conducted at the University of Oregon called, “The effects of target location on musculoskeletal load, task performance, and subjective discomfort during virtual reality interactions” (10)
Again, there have been several anecdotal reports of the headset causing irritation (in one case a rash) to the skin when used for an extended period of time. We would recommend that if a VR headset is being used by multiple people, the VR cushion that sits on the face should be cleaned after each use.
#6: Blunt Trauma Injuries:
Given the immersiveness of VR, a user genuinely perceives themselves as a part of the medium, feeling somewhat cut off from the outside world. Their virtual world merges with the real one. Furthermore, reality is becoming hazy. The mind is made to believe that they actually exist in this virtual, matrix-like world. The result – spatial distortion which can lead to falls or running into environmental obstacles such as tables, chairs, and walls that can lead to injury (11) This is why it is so important that the environment being used to play VR is large enough and clear of any obstacles.
#7: Privacy and Security Challenges:
Most VR platforms are exploiting and monetizing a user’s private data. Common Sense Media, an organization that we highly respect, released their excellent report on VR technology called, “Privacy of Virtual Reality: Our Future in the Metaverse and Beyond” (12). In this report, Common Sense Media found that many of the most popular VR systems that we have mentioned in this posting sell data to third-party marketers, allow for third-party tracking, and provide third-party advertising specific to a user’s use profile. There is no doubt that many VR platforms are collecting a significant amount of sensitive, biometric, behavioural, and personal information of a user.
White Hatter Recommendations:
#1: We do not believe those under the age of 13 should be using VR
Most, not all companies selling VR headsets recommend that a person be at least 13yrs to use their product. Why? – The content of most VR programs is designed for those 13+. However, the scant research that we were able to find support that a pre-teen’s brain “may” not be developed enough to handle the reality of the VR experience. A study by the University of Zurich found, “distinct differences in how adult brains process VR versus those of children. Researchers discovered that adults were better able to modulate VR experiences through the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain associated with emotion and behavior regulation. Children, on the other hand, showed no evidence of such ability as the same area of the brain remained undeveloped. His research team even warned of using caution when exposing children to the emotional stimuli of VR.” (13) (14)
#2: The same digital literacy and Internet safety rules that we recommend for computer, phone, and gaming console use should also be applied to the use of VR (15)
#3: Before allowing a VR game to be downloaded and used by your child, ensure that you check it out first by actually playing the game, or heading over to Common Sense Media and search the game to get their feedback and recommendations (16) This is important when it comes to preventing your child access to hypersexualized behaviour, pornography, inappropriate language, and other toxic online content.
#4: If the VR Headset allows for parental controls, make sure that you set them up. As an example, here’s a link to parental controls for the Meta Oculus VR Headset (17) HTC VIVE (18) However, it should be noted that privacy and security settings for most are very basic in nature, and have not been built on a privacy and security by design perspective and thus offer very little protection.
#5: Make sure the area in which the VR is going to be used is big enough and clear of obstacles to help prevent blunt trauma injuries.
Digital Food For Thought
- https://youtu.be/poB03OIXgPU (caution language)