Is virtual reality dangerous for children?

Virtual reality is now approaching mainstream, but with so little research available it's difficult to determine the dangers of VR for children.


In November 2015, The New York Times and Google teamed up to give away a million Google Cardboard headsets. Virtual reality, once relegated to cheesy science fiction and overpromising carnival attractions, had become so commonplace The New York Times could give it away to promote an app. All it cost parents was the time and energy to fold the device.

Of course, the do-it-yourself Google Cardboard hardly has the corner on the market, and more immersive experiences are available for any family budget, from the cost-efficient Oculus Go to the high-end HTC Vive. As the market continues to flood with newer, more powerful VR tech, children’s desire for it will only grow.

But in the rush to market, little research has been conducted on how virtual reality affects the health of children. While companies do provide age recommendations, the lack of consensus suggests these numbers are arbitrary, more legal safeguarding than a campaign for social awareness.

So, is virtual reality dangerous for children? Unfortunately, there are few definitive answers. (Hardly reassuring news for the grisly imaginations of parents.)

Here’s what we do know...

Physical dangers in virtual worlds

(Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

The first and most obvious danger is that VR headsets blind users to their surroundings. A quick glance at any VR safety manual will provide plenty of warnings for users to always stay seated and stay clear of people, objects, stairs, furniture, windows, and pets. Imagine the damage a sensory-deprived 13-year-old can do to himself, his parents’ living room, and poor Whiskers, and it quickly becomes clear why this is the best-documented danger of virtual reality.

Another well-documented ailment of virtual reality is cybersickness. When playing in VR, a user’s visual and auditory senses tell their brain they're moving, while their inner ear argues the contrary. This bodily disagreement causes a type of motion sickness that can induce nausea, vomiting, headaches, and difficulty balancing. While anyone can suffer from cybersickness, younger children may be particularly at risk as they can lack the self-awareness to recognize the symptoms, leading them to continue playing even as their stomachs beg them to stop.


These are certainly not pleasant side effects, but each is easily allayed by parental supervision and short play sessions, and neither is dangerous in the long term. Where researchers are more concerned is how virtual reality may affect children’s visual development.

Visual effects (not the good kind)

Speaking with CNN, Professor Martin Banks, an optometrist at the University of California, Berkeley, says there’s good evidence that doing near work on tablets, phones, and other screens increases the risk of nearsightedness. He worries “virtual reality might make things worse.”

Similarly, Mark Mon-Williams, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Leeds, notes that virtual reality strains our eyes by forcing them to focus on one location (a two-dimensional screen) while also trying to align as if looking at a far away object (the perceived 3D effect). He affirms that the short-term effects can be headaches, sore eyes, and difficulty concentrating on a visual task, but that the long-term consequences are unknown.

However, in a 2017 statement, the American Academy of Ophthalmology argued that “there is no reason to be concerned that VR headsets will damage eye development, health or function.” The organization also contends that while age limitations may make sense for content, the technology poses no known threat to eyes.

The statement echoed the common refrain that there are currently no long-term studies available.

Developmental dangers?

U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Caycee Watson

Like television and video games before, virtual reality has become a major concern for parents wanting to know how it will affect their children’s mental development. But television and video games have been mainstream for decades, giving scientists time to conduct the studies necessary to measure their effects.

Virtual reality’s previously limited availability has made for few empirical studies. Information is sparse.


Jeremy Bailenson and Jakki Bailey, at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, surveyed the current research and found that “little is known about the effects of IVR [immersive virtual reality] as a technology on child development.” They also note that children at different ages will likely respond to VR differently, as their neural circuits are developing at different stages

One study found that children report a higher sense of presence and “realness” in virtual environments when compared with adults. In another study, children who were told they once swam with whales were more likely to create a false memory of the event if they watched a virtual reality movie showing their virtual avatar swimming with whales.

These studies have disturbing implications, but it should be pointed out that human minds are faulty hard drives, and false memories can be created from many media sources, such as the news and Facebook.

And while parents’ minds tend toward the darker possibilities, there are studies showing that virtual reality’s immersive capabilities can be a net positive for children. A study published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology showed that it can reduce anxiety and be used in pain management for children undergoing painful medical procedures. Other studies have shown that it can be a useful tool to help teach children on the autism spectrum.

Answers TBD

Let’s return to the question at hand: Is virtual reality dangerous for children? And the answer depends on what you mean by “danger.”

Placing screens inches from a child’s eyes can have adverse effects, but there’s no consensus whether long-term damage is worse than other screened devices. And while virtual reality experiences will certainly affect children, all media is designed to affect people on emotional or intellectual levels. As of right now, researchers have yet to definitively show that VR has any greater negative impact on child development than literature, television, or video games.

Given a current survey of the research landscape, worried parents would be best advised to follow safety guidelines and best practices for other media. Limit the amount of time a child spends with virtual reality. Ensure they have interests unrelated to a screen. Spend time enjoying the technology and discussing it with them. Be sure to provide enriching, beneficial, and age-appropriate experiences for their virtual excursions.

For younger children, be sure to limit their VR time to a handful of minutes a day. Regardless of the long-term effects, your day will go much smoother if you don’t have a motion-sick, eye-fatigued eight-year-old to deal with.

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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.


"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.


There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
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