• Dr. Timothy Smith

Kids and Virtual Reality: That Didn't Happen (or Did It?)

Kid with VR Headset

Photo Source: Pixabay

Growing up, we face many experiences from the very good to the very bad and everything in between. These experiences help define who we become as adults. A child bitten by a dog may carry a fear of dogs into adulthood, resulting in a lower chance of ever owing a dog. Such real experiences come with life, but what effects do virtual experiences have on children and their development? Virtual reality (VR) generally refers to a computer-generated simulation of reality using special equipment such as goggles or a helmet with screens and speakers for visual and audio simulation. Additionally, special gloves and suits help simulate physical interaction with the virtual reality. Virtual reality can provide the immersive experience of visiting a distant place or a more realistic sense of participation in a video game or a news story. Advances in computing and computer hardware have contributed greatly to the improvement and proliferation of VR products on the market today, and analysts predict a rapid growth of VR in the near future. The online statistics resource Statistica predicts that the global virtual reality market will reach 160 billion dollars by 2023, which represents a major jump from the $8.9 billion VR market in 2018. (statistica.com)

The rapid expansion and improvement of VR prompts the question of what effects virtual experiences have on children and their development. Jakki O. Bailey and Jeremy N. Bailenson, researchers at Stanford University, have asked this question and have published their findings in scholarly journals. Additionally, they summarized their work and that of others in a book chapter titled, “Immersive Virtual Reality and the Developing Child,” (Cognitive Development in Digital Contexts, 2017 Elsevier Inc.) The authors note that very little is known at this point about the effects of VR on children. However, they did note that previous research has shown that the human body reacts to virtual stimuli as if it were real, indicating that the body does not distinguish between real and virtual reality. Moreover, children ages 6-18 reported a higher sense of realness in VR than older adults. The authors also note that children will more highly identify with characters in a VR environment than in other types of media. They recommend to parents that a VR experience should be limited to small chunks of 5 minutes and should not be consumed in marathon lengths.

Our childhood experiences help form who we become as adults. People experience VR the same way that they experience reality, which means that our bodies do not easily distinguish between the two realities, and children appear to have a harder time distinguishing reality from VR than adults do. The virtual reality market stands to explode over the next four years. As VR continues to improve, parents must carefully regulate children’s use of the technology as the research on its effects especially in children remains very sparse at this time. The Stanford researchers Bailey and Bailenson strongly recommend only small chunks of VR in the range of 5 minutes to be safe. Moreover, parents should not just be aware of the physical effects of VR but the content as well. VR offers optional life experiences. Make sure not to leave unnecessary traumas, virtual dog bites, with children from a bad VR experience.

Dr. Timothy Smith

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback here and in kindle format here.

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