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Is VR Safe for Kids? Check Out These Dangers and Minimization Tips

June 13, 2024 • Devin Partida

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Virtual reality (VR) has gone from a relatively niche option to a widely accessible one. You can strap on a VR headset to explore foreign countries, go to concerts, explore potential new workplaces or play games with friends. But is VR safe for kids? Risks exist, but you can reduce them. 

Inappropriate Content

Between the internet, mobile devices and television, parents already have plenty of concerns regarding the potential for kids to find inappropriate content. Virtual reality could add to the risks. 

One study involved testers creating a kids’ VR account for a fictional 10-year-old. The results showed young people could see content where players shoot themselves in the head. They might get recommendations for first-person shooter games or horror-themed offerings, too. 

Testers on the 10-year-old’s account also experienced hate speech and profanity.

Is VR safe for kids under supervision? Probably, within reason. Set up parental controls before letting a child use the account, and have ongoing discussions about which games are okay to play. Spend time engaging with them as an adult to get an idea of which ones are truly harmless versus risky. 

If your child comes across something inappropriate, have an in-depth conversation about the specifics and how they made the young person feel. Then, look closer at what happened and determine how to prevent future occurrences. 

Eye Problems 

Eye health professionals warn VR headsets could adversely affect kids’ vision. The visual system keeps developing throughout childhood, and these products may disrupt it. 

Scientists need more long-term data to reach a definitive conclusion. Even so, some people have identified potentially problematic aspects with how VR headsets work. Most models have small monitors projected at each eye to create a depth illusion. It’s too early to say, but these components could cause eyestrain, especially during extended use. 

If you own a VR headset, read the manufacturer’s instructions to see if they include age-based usage recommendations. Most do, and you can use those guidelines to support your judgment. 

If you decide to let a child under your supervision use VR headsets, consider doing so only if the young person reduces other types of screen time. Also, set limits so playing time only occurs in short segments. 

Is VR safe for kids under the direction of their eye care professionals? Ongoing studies suggest so. Patients diagnosed with amblyopia — lazy eye — at one children’s hospital can get the condition treated with VR rather than the traditional interventions of eye patches and drops. Research indicated a one-hour daily VR session worked better for kids with amblyopia than glasses alone. 

Some young people are less tolerant of certain treatments, especially if those methods seem invasive. However, many may find VR much more fun, mainly because they’re more likely to view the sessions as fun games than medical care. 

Stranger Danger 

Most of us grew up with our parents telling us never to talk to strangers, but they perceived the dangers to come from people who rolled down their car windows and tried to lure us with treats. Things have changed now that the online world often shows things aren’t always as they seem. 

Anyone who has tried internet dating and been surprised that the person they met in person didn’t match the individual portrayed on their profile knows this well. Things can get complicated in VR applications, too, because many allow players to use avatars. 

Those have both positive and negative characteristics that could put kids at risk. Although avatars allow players to engage without revealing how they really look, they also make it too easy for adults to pose as children or otherwise present themselves to attract young people. 

Many kids become lonely if it’s hard to form or maintain friendships. That’s especially true for young people who are shy or have characteristics that might increase their risk of being bullied. In such cases, virtual reality environments can seem particularly comforting. Interacting with avatars can boost kids’ confidence and help them be authentic when engaging with others. 

However, virtual reality grooming is an emerging danger targeting unsuspecting young people. Groomers typically work slowly to establish trust with their victims. They then urge kids not to tell their parents or other trusted adults about these new “friendships.”

The best way for adults to assess grooming dangers is to play games themselves before letting kids experience them. They should also be alert for warning signs, such as children suddenly neglecting their real-life friends or wanting to spend significantly more time immersed in VR content than usual. 

Unhealthy Escapism 

Whether our chosen activities involve going for a run, brewing a cup of tea to enjoy while reading a book or watching a few episodes of a favorite show, most of us have several preferred ways to unwind after long or stressful days — and some could include VR headsets and games. 

However, as people mature, they understand the importance of enjoyment in moderation. Someone who likes to relax with a glass of wine after dinner knows they shouldn’t drink the whole bottle, and especially not if they have to work the next day. Is VR safe for kids who might become overly reliant on that entertainment to escape reality? 

Parents and others overseeing kids who enjoy virtual reality should watch for patterns indicating use of the technology as an unhealthy coping mechanism. Getting engrossed in a highly detailed and exciting virtual world is fine for an hour but possibly worrying for five. 

It’s also likely okay if the overdependence on virtual reality is temporary. Moving to a new house, changing schools or watching parents navigate their divorce can all leave kids craving normalcy. Some may find their favorite VR games provide soothing experiences during upsetting periods that require adapting to new circumstances. 

Look for signs that VR time is becoming problematic. Would your child rather stay home and play games instead of getting to know a new community or student body? Do they habitually use VR headsets to avoid dealing with real-world issues? If so, it’s time to have an honest chat with them about what’s going on and why. 

The outcomes may indicate the best approach is to talk to your child’s doctor or another trusted, qualified professional. Alternatively, making improvements could involve setting new or stronger rules about when and how the young person can play VR. If you’ve become a virtual reality enthusiast as an adult, be a good example for kids to follow. 

Is VR Safe for Kids? That’s for You to Decide

These examples show that although virtual reality comes with potential risks, you can reduce them with proactive decisions. However, every child is different, and you should assess individual circumstances to determine if they’re mature enough to play and that the gaming sessions shouldn’t negatively affect their development. 

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