School & District Management

Virtual Reality and Children: ‘We Just Don’t Know That Much,’ Report Finds

By Benjamin Herold — April 04, 2018 3 min read
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Despite limited research into its impact on children’s development, virtual reality is getting a big push from industry leaders, leaving parents of two minds about the emerging technology.

According to a new report from the nonprofit group Common Sense Media, a full 62 percent of parents believe VR will provide educational experiences for their children. But 60 percent of those same parents are at least “somewhat concerned” about negative health effects, the group found.

“The truth is, when it comes to VR and kids, we just don’t know that much,” wrote Jeremy Bailenson, the director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab and a co-author of the report, titled Virtual Reality 101: What You Need to Know About Kids and VR.

As a result, Bailenson wrote, “for children, moderation should prevail.”

The report includes a review of existing research into virtual reality’s effects on children, as well as the results of an original online survey of more than 12,000 adults, conducted in December 2017.

Among the key survey findings:

  • 21 percent of parents reported owning a virtual-reality device.
  • 13 percent said they planned to buy a VR device in the next year.
  • Just 43 percent of parents said virtual reality is appropriate for children under 13.
  • Among parents with a child aged 8-17 who has used VR, the most common uses were playing games (76 percent), watching videos (38 percent), and exploring environments (33 percent.)
  • The biggest concerns parents reported about virtual reality was that children would be exposed to sexual or violent content.
  • The biggest barrier to VR adoption among parents was a lack of interest.

To help families and educators make sense of this emerging technology, Common Sense Media will begin reviewing new VR content through its online ratings-and-reviews platform, founder James Steyer said in an introductory letter in the report.

Virtual Reality a Double-Edged Sword?

As virtual-reality technology has advanced and hardware prices have plunged, there’s been renewed attention to VR and its potential applications, including in education. Among the biggest: virtual field trips, promoting empathy, and some research suggesting it can be a useful tool for helping students with learning about things like fractions and photosynthesis.

But the biggest selling point for VR—that it can make experiences feel more real, because it is so immersive—is also at the root of many of the concerns about how the technology might impact users, especially young children.

Among the developmental concerns that researchers have raised: whether younger children can distinguish physical from virtual reality, VR’s impact on children’s impulse control and aggression, and children’s apparent tendency to treat time spent in virtual reality more like an actual experience than like a media experience, such as watching television.

There are also practical concerns: the development of high-quality educational content for VR systems has lagged well behind the development of new hardware, and most experts recommend that young children use VR for no more than a few minutes at a stretch.

Summing up some of the limited research to date on virtual reality’s effects on young children, Bailenson of Stanford wrote that there are promising signs, but also plenty of reasons to be cautious.

“Nobody got sick, nobody got hurt, and to date no parents have reported any ill effects,” Bailenson wrote. “But the kids were meeting Grover from Sesame Street, and they were supervised in VR sessions that lasted only about five minutes.”

Photo: Triston Dunkerson, center, uses a VR viewer to go on a virtual field trip to a rainforest during a class at Chapelwood Elementary School in Indianapolis last spring.--AJ Mast for Education Week-File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.