The social media company will, later this year, also enable parents to set up accounts for their children aged 10-12. Despite assurances that parents will be able to set time limits for their children, enforce breaks, and protect their data there are many unknowns when it comes to the health, safety and protection of children.
While VR technology has been in existence for decades, recent advancements in computing have seen it rapidly become a mainstream consumer product and the big technology companies are moving into this space. Meta is promoting its Quest 2 and 3 headsets and Apple will release the Vision Pro next year.
It seems as if Meta, which highlights the “vast array of engaging and educational apps, games and more across our platform”, is looking at how it can corner the market, targeting young children by grooming their parents to normalise and promote the use of virtual reality through an educational lens.
Virtual reality is an immersive computer-generated environment that presents a three-dimensional experience, creating a heightened sense of realism for the user who wear a set of goggles. When using this technology individuals feel fully engaged in an artificial world and can interact with virtual objects through physical actions.
This computer-generated environment, which closely mimics reality, greatly enhances the user’s overall experience compared to other forms of media. The distinctive qualities of VR, such as its immersive, multi-sensory, and embodied nature, differentiate it from previous technologies, resulting in heightened possibilities and concerns.
As technologies evolve and converge, both social media and virtual reality will work in tandem. There are already social apps where people wear VR headsets and share experiences, gameplay and communicate, but the combination of these two technologies will take things to another level.
Children’s engagement with VR sets it apart from other technologies by enhancing immersion and intensifying their interactions. On the positive side, VR can facilitate engaging, meaningful, iterative, socially interactive, and joyful learning experiences.
However, there is also a potential for the amplification of negative aspects, such as cyberbullying, time displacement, feelings of isolation, and concerns regarding mental wellbeing. Moreover, it is crucial to consider the intensity of the sensory experience and the complexity of the content. Fast-paced and fantastical content in videos can deplete children’s executive functions, which are essential for regulating behaviour.
The intensity of VR experiences, particularly those with minimal interaction, may have even more significant depletion effects. So far there have only been a limited number of empirical studies conducted on the effects of VR on child development, partly because manufacturers’ guidelines have recommended restricting the use of VR until the age of 13. Of those studies, most have only explored the short-term effects of virtual reality.
Meta’s move to lower the minimum age for VR comes at a time when social media companies are being scrutinised about the potential harm to teenagers’ mental health and their exposure to harmful content. Dr Vivek Murthy, the United States Surgeon General, recently released the health authority’s strongest advisory yet about social media.
He referred to the critical stage in brain development that can make young people more vulnerable to harms from social media and called for “urgent action”. He said we need to “gain a better understanding of the full impact of social media use” to “minimise the harms of social media platforms, and create safer, healthier online environments to protect children”.
In the US this year, two senators requested Meta suspend its premier VR app to teenagers aged between 13-17 due to the physical and mental harm it was causing. Parents had been horrified to discover their children were watching violent and often disturbing VR content. Yet Meta disregarded this call and continued to allow teenagers as young as 13 to access the app.
Meta has justified its decision, reassuring parents that there has been an established track record for VR use with the general population. It has conceded that children’s visual health needs to be considered despite arguing that there is “no evidence to date showing persistent negative outcomes on vision under conditions of typical and expected use (aside from visual discomfort and eye strain common with use of digital media).” While visual health is important, it is not the central question here.
We need to explore the long-term relationships between VR usage and various aspects of child development, including cognitive functions such as attention control, vision, and executive functions, as well as social, physical, and motor development. Arbitrarily lowering the entry age shows a reckless disregard of the potential consequences.
This article was originally published by The Age: Is ‘goggle time’ the new ‘screen time’? Virtual reality brings great risks for our kids, published 1 July 2023.
Therese Keane is professor of STEM education and associate dean of research and industry engagement in the School of Education, La Trobe University. Her research lies at the intersection of digital technologies usage related to children, young people, teachers, parents, and gender.
Media: Courtney Carthy-O'Neill, firstname.lastname@example.org +61 487 448 734