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Is it safe for kids to use VR? Yes, but ...

Kid wearing Merge 360 headset
Kid wearing Merge 360 headset (Image credit: Windows Central)

There are few adults out there who climb inside of a VR headset and aren't smiling the whole time. Fully immersing yourself in a virtual environment is an incredible experience. Everyone should have the opportunity to explore VR, especially right now when developers are trying so hard to encourage new experiences at every turn.

What about our kids, though? Is it safe for children to use any of these VR headsets? If so, what are the rules for making sure they are using these headsets safely? We've asked these questions repeatedly over the last year, especially with Google Cardboard offering experiences to classrooms and headsets like the Merge Mini specifically targeting children.

The good news is it's just fine to let your child use VR, but you're going to want to step in and make sure everything is safe before letting kids wander off into the virtual world.

What you need to know about children and VR

There are several important concerns when it comes to kids using VR headsets, and most of the issues are the same concerns parents and doctors have had about any form of stereoscopic imagery. This includes the 3D effect in the Nintendo 3DS game console, 3D TVs that require special glasses, and now VR headsets. The primary concern is that these images cause the eye to focus in a way that can quickly cause fatigue and strain, and extended exposure to those stresses can cause eye damage over time. Kids aren't usually the best at recognizing things like eye strain before it becomes eye pain, which is where parents come in.

Take breaks at least once an hour, and everything should be fine.

Using something like Google Daydream, many doctors recommend a strict enforcement of at least 10-minute breaks for every hour of usage. This falls closely in line with warnings found in Nintendo's 3DS, which regularly encourages players to take breaks after extended gameplay. Google Cardboard isn't really designed for an hour of continuous use to begin with, so as long as there's an adult nearby to manage time behind the lenses there's little concern of damage from those experiences.

It's also important to keep an eye on the minimum suggested age for the hardware you are using and take a look at why. The Merge Mini is rated for kids ages 10 and older, while Samsung's Gear VR has a warning on the display to avoid using the headset if you are under 13. In fact, most VR headsets suggest you start at age 13. The reason for this has a lot more to do with the hardware design than actual safety. Most of these headsets have lenses that can't be moved, which means it's impossible to adjust them to the correct interpupillary distance (IPD) for the most comfortable VR experience. The potential for eye strain when the IPD isn't set correctly is much higher, so a lot of these companies are taking a "better safe than sorry" approach and guessing if you are under age 13 your eyes aren't spaced quite far enough apart to enjoy these headsets yet.

When it comes to VR and kids, one size doesn't fit all

Larger, more complicated VR headsets like Windows Mixed Reality headsets or the HTC Vive have some different rules to keep in mind. These headsets include adjustable pieces to set the lenses to your IPD, which should be adjusted for each person who uses the headset to reduce eye strain. Setting the correct IPD for children is difficult for several reasons. The size of their heads and the distance between their eyes isn't part of the general spec used to design these headsets, so there may not be an ideal setting for younger children. Second, asking a 10-year-old to let you know when the image you as the adult can't see becomes clear requires a degree of trust and honesty that will either work out fine or end in your child deliberately choosing the setting that "looks coolest" to them. Once you have set that IPD, the same basic time management rules apply in these VR headsets. Take breaks at least once an hour, and everything should be fine.

PlayStation VR is an exception.

PlayStation VR is an exception to this, in that as the user you get the right "eye fit" by going through a multi-step setup process. This setup process uses the sensors in the headset to make a good guess at your IPD and has you line up a series of dots to make sure it's the right setting for you. There is an IPD adjustment setting if you know the exact measurement for your child, but most users are encouraged to use this setup tool.

This article is not a note from your doctor to let your kid play video games with you. While we've done the research, including interviews with pediatricians and found papers with medical professionals on the best ways to keep your kids safe in this environment, it's always a good idea to talk with your own doctor. Get an eye exam, ask your pediatrician, and when you get the all clear, you and your children can have all of the perfectly responsible fun you want in VR. Enjoy!

Russell is a tech nerd who chases the best of everything, from phones to game consoles to laptops and everything glowing or beeping. He's the Managing Editor of gaming content for Mobile Nations and can be found contributing to all of the Mobile Nations sites. Reach out on Twitter!

21 Comments
  • They already living in generation "z"ombie. Kids to be turned in to VR "Smombie"
  • The Samsung Odyssey is absolutely amazing but I am surprised how limited the IPD adjustment is on the small size. I am well into adulthood, with probably a normal sized head and IPD and I have to use it on very close to the narrowest setting and the adjustment only seems to change very little with the turn of the dial. I don't know how this thing would be able to get small enough for children. However, my youngest is 14 and it seems to work for him but he has a bigger head than most, probably.
    I can use this thing with no problems other than a sweaty eye area for at least 2 hours.
    Another interesting fact many would like to know: I am a little far sighted in that what I am reading has to be at least a foot away from my face to be clear. I thought this would be a problem in the headset as the lenses and screens are much closer, but it is not a problem at all. I can see just fine. And the closer you go to a VR object, the better it looks. PS: WC, the post comment button in your Windows 10 app still doesn't work. I have to leave the app and log into the webpage. Really?
  • Have you tried logging off and on again?
  • Good tip, it was frustrating me for a long time, also try resetting the WC app in Settings>Troubleshoot
  • Yea logging out of the app and back usually fixes that. Reinstall if necessary.
  • Have you tried the software settings for IPD? Don't know if this is accessible due to the existence of the hardware dial or if the dial actually controls the software setting ...
  • Only thing not safe is when children find articles online for watching porn on vr and wind up becoming little hoes in their childhood. Happened to a friend of mine.
  • So basically don't allow children to visit windows central as they continue to repost an article on this subject from time to time. That's the only article I've seen them reposting on multiple occasions since I've been here (four years or more). It's shameful but hey, I guess they cater to their audience. Or at least they think they are.
  • They repost many articles from time to time with updated content when relevent - but yeah single out the porn one for the sake of your prejudices and making your point 👍🏻
  • I don't know if they update that one as I have never opened it. I stand corrected that they repost other articles when they update them. Anyway, I find it extremely inappropriate to post such articles on this website. IMHO, using VR for porn should be condemned, not promoted. There are enough problems with porn as it is, we don't need VR porn problems.
  • You'll be happy to know we removed the NSFW VR content re-shares from the site and won't be posting them again in the future! Thanks for the feedback.
  • Haaaa Haaa!
  • Windows 10 has loads of family safety settings to prevent adult content and mature content so this is easily remedied just go the extra mile and make sure your kids are safe online.
  • Who needs VR when there's a whole, real world outside of a PC screen. Children should be encouraged to explore reality
  • There should be a ballance really.
  • That's the same room for all those VR porn posts crossposted here
  • Yes, I'm confident that WC is a major site kids like to visit. And also the only way to find porn (related) stuff on the internet 🙄
  • 8 comments on thumbnail but zero comments on comment section.
  • I mean 1
  • I think as just way overexposed these days to a myriad of devices already. And that in itself is not a problem that VR created by any means. It's just the reality of life nowadays.
  • Had the same issue with the dell headset and it's "software" IPD.. Total screw up