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!
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