Children and Virtual Reality: Do they need more protection?

Children and Virtual Reality: Do they need more protection?

With the growing use of VR glasses, more and more children are coming into contact with the technology. This holds both opportunities and dangers.

Statistics and reports on the part of VR studios prove: Meta Quest 2 was also a popular gift this Christmas, especially among children. This is evidenced by a flood of posts from social networks that capture surprising and touching reactions to the Christmas gift.

What most parents might not know is that VR goggles are primarily designed for adults and their head size, and most manufacturers prohibit use by minors.

Meta cites a minimum age of 13 for the use of its VR technology and services, in compliance with global child protection regulations and the U.S. COPPA privacy law, which protects the online privacy of children under 13.

That this age restriction is unlikely to stop any child from dabbling in virtual reality is well known to anyone who visits popular VR social apps like Rec Room and VRChat or plays online games from time to time. Here, minors are often in the majority and easily recognized by their voice. The phenomenon is so widespread that the "child plague" has long since reached meme status in the VR scene.

The VR effect on children: a great unknown.

Meanwhile, whether and how virtual reality affects children has been little researched. A recent study, for example, suggests that VR consumption can cause coordination problems in children, while a not-much-older study found no negative effects on children's so-called visuomotor skills. Even if there is still uncertainty in the research, this does not mean that VR does not involve risks for children.

Since the human visual apparatus works differently under VR goggles than when viewing the physical environment (see vergence-accommodation conflict), the question arises whether excessive and prolonged VR consumption could impair visual development. This would require longer-term studies, which would be difficult to conduct for ethical reasons alone.

In addition to medical concerns, one could also cite psychological ones. Assuming a child spends a lot of time in VR, could he or she be more likely to have trouble distinguishing between reality and play than, say, watching a TV show?

This is another valid question because virtual reality is more effective at mimicking human perception and faking "reality." If this were the case, then unsuitable content would possibly be even more disturbing for children than it would be on a monitor or smartphone. However, scientific evidence for these theses is lacking.

The metaverse is hardly regulated

Among the potentially harmful content are VR platforms that serve as social gathering places. The proto-metaverse of a Rec Room and VRChat, as mentioned above, is particularly heavily used by minors because access is free and allows social interactions. If harassment occurs here, it can be perceived as particularly unpleasant, as the users have a quasi-physical presence within these worlds.

VRChat in particular has a reputation as a disinhibited social space where strong language, racist remarks, and sexualized outfits are the order of the day. This was also recently shown by research conducted by the non-profit organization CCDH (Center for Countering Digital Hate). The testers report (sexual) harassment, hate speech, and other forms of rule violations.

Manga-Avatare tanzen in virtuellem VRChat-Club.

VRChat prohibits sexual and racist content and harassment, but as a social platform it also only reflects society, including its dark sides. | Image: VRChat

These findings have put the UK's data protection authority, the ICO, on notice. It suspects that Meta Quest 2 violates the Children's Code, a new directive issued by the authority to protect minors from the negative effects of online services, which is legally binding for all Internet companies.

The ICO (Information Commissioner's Office) now wants to summon Meta for an interview. The company faces a warning or fine if the allegations are confirmed.


Meta's responded in a statement saying it was "confident" that the VR headset met the terms of the directive and pointed to the terms of use, which prohibits use below the age of 13.

Parents bear responsibility

In the Oculus Safety Center, Meta invokes parents' duty of supervision and care:

"Adults should be mindful of how their children 13 and older use Oculus devices. This includes the content they select. Moreover, parental controls should be used when available. Additionally, adults should be mindful of how much time their children 13 and older spend using their headsets and that they take regular breaks."

For virtual reality, as with any other medium, whether it's a book, a movie, or a video game, a) it's all about the right content and the way it's consumed, and b) parents need to take responsibility in this regard .

The PEGI age ratings for VR apps can help with the selection of VR games. And if you want to check what your child is watching, there are numerous ways to stream the VR content to a secondary device, such as your smartphone. Or even better, you can play along with your kids by passing the VR goggles around.

Children can benefit from virtual reality

However, it would be wrong to absolve Meta of any responsibility. It would probably be easy for the company to introduce better age control or user accounts for children that would prevent unsuitable VR apps from being installed in the first place. That would help parents fulfill their duty of care.

Meta would first have to publicly admit that Meta Quest 2 is used by children. This is not likely for the time being, given the current research situation and the legal problems that could arise from marketing VR devices to children.


VR games like Fisherman's Tale are like fairy tales and entertain in a magical and challenging way. | Image: Innerspace VR

That's a shame because virtual reality has huge potential for kids. It can intelligently entertain, educate, or unleash creative forces in healthy moderation and with the right choice of VR apps.

On the other hand, children below the age limit usually use devices running accounts of their parents or relatives - again, Meta has little influence on that.

The guidelines and safety tips of the non-profit organization XRSI (Cross Reality Safety Initiative), which were written especially for children and parents, can help with orientation.

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Sources: The Guardian