One of the most widely anticipated 6G use cases is extended reality, with which humans will be able to immerse themselves in virtual worlds and feel sensations through haptics. While adults are excited about this possibility for entertainment or educational goals, what is the impact of such experiences on children? Is it safe for them?
Today’s VR headset manufacturers have not reached a consensus on that question: HTC recommends, for example, only adults play with its device, while Sony says kids aged 12 or above can safely use the brand’s headset. Oculus and Samsung consider 13 years old the minimum age.
On the other hand, a report published by NGO Common Sense, which helps kids, parents, and institutions in technology inclusion, shows that more than 70% of parents who already owned a VR device believed the headsets were appropriate for children under 13.
So what is the verdict?
Answer: In the long term, the impacts are unknown. But recent studies provide important clues for how children react to immersive content and some – positive and negative – consequences.
Virtual Avatar, Real Body
A study conducted by researchers from several UK institutions, the Uppsala University, and private company Bespoke VR indicates that children are likely to recognise a virtual image as an extension of their own body.
In one of the experiments, children were asked to play a game and pop a bubble when it turned blue. Half of the group was assigned a virtual human-like hand, and the other part received a 3D block. They needed to use the digital hand or the block to pop the bubbles.
The results, published in 2021 in the IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics journal, show that “the hand and block were rated similarly in terms of ownership, agency, and location.”
However, when the avatar’s movement was synchronous – that is, it had no delay in comparison to the child’s movement – kids recognised the human hand as part of the body more than they did with the block.
Another study, this one conducted by researchers at the University of Zurich, tested whether the sense of ownership and agency in children between 8 to 12 years old would vary from a human-like avatar or a skeleton. The same methodology was applied to adults.
“Participants overall reported more ownership for the human avatar than for the skeleton,” the researchers said in the paper published in 2021. But when it comes to agency, there is a visible change. “[Later] comparisons showed that agency for the human and skeleton avatars did not differ significantly in the child group. On the other hand, adults experienced more agency for the human avatar than for the skeleton avatar.”
These studies and other research indicate that children tend to confuse what is happening in the real and the virtual worlds.
The Good and The Bad
Implications of this behaviour can assume a positive and a negative aspect depending on how parents manage the situation.
According to the Common Sense report, characters in VR can influence kids more than if they were displayed on a TV or computer screen.
“A positive implication of this finding is that the media characters in VR may help children translate skills learned in educational virtual environments to the physical world. Alternatively, the power of social influence in VR could encourage antisocial behaviour, too,” the authors pointed out.
On the other hand, parents should be aware that the opposite can also be true. “While parents might deem it acceptable for children to play the role of a soldier engaged in modern warfare […] on a traditional gaming console, playing that game in VR would likely be processed by the brain in ways more like an actual experience,” the report reads.
In short, the paper lists several possible good and bad effects of VR on children. Many of the long-term impacts are still unknown.
Pain management: Even though there is little research on how children react, healthcare institutions widely employ VR as a tool to distract patients from pain in medical procedures. Researchers have found indications that this use case might be effective on children as well.
Education: Probably the most recognised VR use case for kids following gaming. While there is little evidence that students learn more through immersive experiences, they are definitely more enthusiastic about it.
Empathy: According to the report, “one effect of VR on the emotional side of prosocial behaviour is empathy.” Plus, studies have indicated that “embodying an avatar of a different skin tone can reduce implicit racial bias.”
Fun and imaginative play: Both kids and adults agree that VR experiences are exciting and a fun way to play as a family.
Sensory and vision: In adults, prolonged use of VR might cause what experts call the “simulation sickness.” The same could apply to children.
Aggression: Recent – although limited – studies have shown that young adults might respond more aggressively to VR violent games than in other platforms due to the enhanced immersion.
Escapism and distraction: The same concerns that children would retreat in a “virtual world” associated with the television and movies repeat with VR. “To avoid such social isolation, parents will need to be on top of managing their children’s media experiences,” the report reads.
VR in 6G
Now that the term “metaverse” has become popular, it is expected that immersive experiences will gain more attention. With 6G, the network researchers believe will enable even volumetric video in mobile connections and the impacts will be felt more heavily.
Common Sense’s piece of advice for parents? For now, use your common sense. “For children, moderation should prevail. Instead of hours of use, which might apply to other screens, think in terms of minutes. Most VR is meant to be done on the five- to 10-minute scale,” Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, recommended.
“As far as content goes, a good rule is, if you wouldn’t want your children to live with the memory of the event in the real world, then don’t have them do it in VR. Travelling to the moon is fine, but scary experiences will stay with them.”
Journalist since eight years old, when I would read the newspaper out loud and pretend it was a radio show. Based in São Paulo, I have worked for Brazilian websites as reporter and editor before joining 6GWorld