Now more than ever, parents are especially mindful of the role technology plays in their child's development. But while the impact of devices like iPads and computers is well-studied by now, the effects of newer technologies like VR remain less clear. While technology companies (ourselves included) can only offer limited advice to parents, there's plenty of qualified information online explaining how and when parents can allow their children to use Virtual Reality.
Rather than offering our own advice, we've surveyed some of those available resources and put together five major takeaways below. If you're a parent wondering when your child can be allowed access to a VR headset, but don't want to sift through mountains of articles, studies, and guidelines, read on.
Studies have found that VR has no negative impact on visual function or visual development in children. As leading authorities on visual development, the American Journal of Ophthalmology conducted their own studies which found that zero out of fifty children under the age of 10 experienced any effect, positive or negative, on visuomotor function from using Virtual Reality headsets.
In fact, it’s possible that VR can actually assist with visual development in children. One researcher noted that "only those with already weak eye movement and control are likely to experience adverse effects such as headaches and eyestrain,” meaning that VR headsets can help identify pre-existing problems with vision and motion sickness. There are multiple studies also showing the potential for VR to treat visual impairments and increase hand-eye coordination in children with disabilities.
When it comes to electronic devices, parents are often concerned with the effects of VR on the brain, particularly the potential to impact their child’s attention span. We’ve all seen the idea of reduced attention spans trotted out in debates over video games and TV in the past. Most studies on attention span focus largely on VR games, despite the fact that VR today offers a huge amount of non-gaming applications. This makes sense for the sake of studies on children, however, given that kids are more likely to use VR for fun than for navigating data sets.
Research on childrens’ attention spans in VR reveals that contrary to the popular narrative with TV and video games, certain children actually experienced increased attention spans when using VR. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) particularly enjoyed greater learning outcomes and saw a reduction of disruptive behavior and social anxiety. Children with other learning disabilities such as ADHD were also shown to benefit greatly from using VR, in regards to their attention spans and levels of impulsiveness. And more broadly, it’s worth remembering that despite all the talk, the connection between personal devices and attention spans still remains unproven to this day.
In short, the answer is both. Games which are explicitly focused on education – think Hooked on Phonics – seem to be less effective in VR than in traditional 2D displays. This could have to do with the fact that operating in a 3D space is highly stimulating, potentially distracting from the actual learning content.
However, this leads us to the more effective side of educational games, which relates to spatial reasoning skills. Navigating a virtual 3D space in VR has been shown to enhance spatial reasoning skills in most children. There's a gendered component too, as girls were shown to derive more spatial reasoning skills from VR than boys. While educational games may not be as effective in VR in terms of learning the material, spatial reasoning skills have been shown to benefit from VR usage.
Especially when VR devices were just arriving on the market, one of the most common complaints was from users feeling the sensation of motion sickness. It’s true that some users (both children and adults) experience some degree of motion sickness over prolonged usage of a VR headset. This feeling tends to pass within a few moments of taking the headset off, however, and researchers have found no immediate or lasting negative impact on visuomotor function from motion sickness.
The sensation of motion sickness from VR headsets isn’t particularly common either. A 2020 study republished by the National Library of Medicine found that pediatric hospital patients aged 6-18 who used VR to reduce anxiety showed no adverse effects, physical or mental, from using VR. So for some children, motion sickness won’t ever be a problem with VR usage. It’s worth remembering as well that as VR hardware advances, aspects linked to motion sickness like refresh rate and Field of View will continue to improve.
Overall, the suggested age range from most companies usually lands between 12-14 years old. Meta, the manufacturer of the world's most popular VR headset, the Oculus Quest 2, doesn’t permit users under 13 years of age to create Oculus accounts or use VR headsets. Sony states that PlayStation VR shouldn’t be used by children under 12. HTC also advises 13+ for users of its Vive headset. The list goes on.
Many companies offer some tools to help parents moderate the content adolescents have access to in VR. For example, Oculus Store content is rated by the International Age Rating Coalition (IARC), using the same grading system as video games (E for Everyone, T for Teen, etc.) Meta also offers parents the ability to observe the headset’s screen using their smartphone, allowing parents to monitor their children’s headset remotely.
Beyond that, however, there’s no real kid-specific safety features for the Quest. "You'll know if your teen is spending too much time online," one section from Meta’s user guidelines reads. Their Safety Center webpage and more pointed Parent Education Hub offer boilerplate safety information, relating more to knocking over lamps than affecting a child's visual development. Mark Zuckerberg has even been quoted as saying that he doesn’t see a child mode for Oculus VR coming any time soon. HTC’s “Guardian Mode'' makes a step in the right direction by limiting the usable apps and restricting in-game purchases with PIN codes. But across the industry, VR headsets generally lack child-specific restrictions, meaning it’s up to parents to decide for themselves how they want their child to engage with Virtual Reality.
The vast majority of research on VR usage in children concludes that the guidelines laid out by organizations (like Meta's 13+ rule) and academic studies are credible. Above all, however, we have to keep in mind that these studies were all conducted in environments where adults are carefully controlling the children's use of VR. The children selected for many of the studies had no major health risks for Virtual Reality, no history of seizures or other serious pre-existing conditions, and their VR usage was administered by researchers, healthcare professionals, and other similarly qualified adults.
This indicates that ultimately, adult supervision is still one of the best safeguards against negatively impacting your child's development. Hopefully these findings will help parents inform their decision-making on when they can introduce their child to VR and how they want their child to use VR. We’ve linked some additional helpful resources below offering more info on VR for parents. At the end of the day, it seems that Meta may be right that if your child is overusing VR, "You'll know."
Cameron is the Content Writer/Editor at The Glimpse Group. As a former academic researcher in the humanities, he blends his outside perspective as a relative newcomer to tech with Glimpse's industry-leading expertise to demystify the world of VR, AR, and the metaverse.