If you bought your child a virtual reality headset for Christmas, you should realise you’re experimenting on them.
That’s according to Michael Madary, a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Mainz in Germany, who last February co-authored the first code of ethics on the use of VR.
While there is no concrete evidence that time spent in VR will do youngsters physical or psychological harm, there’s currently no evidence to the contrary either.
“For obvious ethical reasons, it’s very difficult to do research using children as subjects,” Madary told Live Science.
“Children, at a young age, have difficulty distinguishing reality from fiction or fantasy,” Madary said. “You could imagine putting them in VR—that inability to distinguish could be exaggerated.”
His primary concern seemed to be that children could be manipulated while in a VR environment, either for advertising or political or religious ends.
“If you have a child spending a long time immersed in a VR environment where manipulation is going on, it could be seen as a threat to their autonomy and what kind of adult they become.
“I suspect that if parents are doing a good job as parents, that’s pretty much the most important factor,” he said. “It’s just exercising extreme caution and knowing that the experiments have not been done, so you’re experimenting on your kids.”
Several other experts have echoed Madary’s comments, urging caution in the amount of exposure older children have, while advising against younger children using them at all.
Manufacturers recommend ages between 12 and 13 as a starting point, though this appears to be based on nothing more solid than guesswork.
Marientina Gotsis, director of the Creative Media & Behavioral Health Center at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, told Live Science: “We do not have enough data on the safety of current VR technology for children.
“So, the sparsity of research data and what we know about neuroplasticity [the brain’s ability to reorganize itself] and children does not make me comfortable to recommend what is available now as is.
“The brain is very plastic in young ages, and prolonged exposure with improperly fitted devices could incur damage,” she said.
“Children also may not understand how to communicate eyestrain and may lack reflexes to remove the devices if they find them uncomfortable.”
“In virtual reality, basically the brain is only getting input from the eyes and we don’t know if that isolated input is really going to have an impact on the other senses and how we integrate and experience.”
A big concern is how our minds process ocular input, which could partly explain why some people experience nausea using VR.
When looking at distance, our eyes first point toward an object, then the lenses focus. This is called vergence-accommodation, and continually changes as we look at objects closer and further away.
In VR, depth is an illusion and there’s a concern that the eyes remaining focussed on a fixed point could cause problems.
“Some scientists believe this is the reason some people experience symptoms when viewing 3D stimuli—TV and cinema, as well as headsets,” Peter Howarth, an optometrist and senior lecturer in visual ergonomics at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom, told Live Science.
“Virtual reality is still a very new technology, still evolving and we really don’t yet know what the impact may be on children,”
And some have gone even further, suggesting that without other sensory input, it is difficult to predict how our minds will process the optical input.
Dr. Rudrani Banik, a neuro-ophthalmologist with New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai, told ABC News: “In virtual reality, basically the brain is only getting input from the eyes and we don’t know if that isolated input is really going to have an impact on the other senses and how we integrate and experience,” she said.
“I would say moderation is most important when allowing our children to use these devices,” she said.