Our son recently received a VR headset and watching them use it prompted a few deep thoughts about the risks of VR to kids already consumed by digital screens.
Our son recently received a Gear VR headset as a birthday gift. He doesn’t have a phone to use with it so he borrowed his grandmother’s Samsung Galaxy S7 to try the headset out. Actually, we all tried it out and it is an amazing piece of technology.
Watching him use it bothered me, though. The technology has tremendous potential to introduce our kids to experiences of new things using portable VR technology. At the same time I think this we are going to have to moderate how often they use this technology pretty carefully. Bear with me, I’ll explain why I say that.
All that screen time already
At the moment our kids have old smartphones and an old iPad 1 they play with at home. They watch videos on YouTube (our daughter started using YouTube Kids after I “upgraded” her iPad 1 experience to an old iPhone 4s that supports it and she loves it – thankfully), play games like Clash Royale and build stuff in Minecraft.
They only use their devices on weekends and, usually, only after they have finished their homework. Even with that limitation, we have to come up with things to do with them to make sure they don’t spend their entire weekends staring at a screen. I came up with a couple rules to impose some sort of limitation on their device use that include both kids putting devices when the first device’s battery runs flat.
Still, our kids can disappear for a couple hours at a time and spend all that time staring at their devices. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing because some of what they do on their devices is somewhat educational.
I’ve noticed that devices tend to make them pretty anti-social and detached from the rest of the family. Heck, that happens to us parents too so I make a conscious effort to limit my screen time when I am around my kids (and generally).
The VR headset made our kids disappear
VR headsets are only going to aggravate that tendency to detach, I think. You physically can’t see the world around you. The virtual environment can be so consuming, you can easily become oblivious to the world around you. For kids who already have a propensity to be sucked in by screens, I can already see we will need to supervise how much our kids use VR headsets very closely.
Fortunately, they don’t have a device that is compatible with the headset so they simply can’t use it unless someone with a compatible headset is around. That helps!
I’ve been thinking about the phones our kids have (or will have in the case of our daughter). At the moment, our son’s “daily driver” is a very basic Nokia feature phone that can make calls and send SMS messages. Many of his friends have smartphones but I’ve already told him he won’t receive one for a while still. You just have to look at how kids are today with smartphones to guess why (or just watch this interview with Louis CK):
By contrast there is a real world to engage with
Another gift our son received was a dense chalk egg with a plastic crocodile (I think) embedded in it. It came with two plastic tools and the idea was for him to basically chip away at the egg until he uncovered the toy inside.
He spent the better part of the day chipping away at the egg. It looked like a lot of fun and it was the sort of thing that involved everyone, either as spectators or by helping him along.
By the time he finished it in the evening, he had a pile of dust and this little toy. He also really enjoyed doing it and was talking about getting another one. What struck me about this toy/project is that it is a stark contrast to a VR headset. Chipping away at that egg, he was firmly rooted in the moment in our physical space and interacted with whoever was there with him. With a VR headset, he is sequestered from his physical space and from everyone sharing that space with him.
I don’t think that he would be content only doing this sort of thing and I wouldn’t want to prevent him from using devices for play too. I just found the contrasts between the two activities to be pretty indicative of the challenges of VR headsets, especially when it comes to kids.
When it comes to new technologies, I much prefer augmented reality over virtual reality. At least AR takes its cues from the space we occupy and augments it with additional digital and information overlays. I think AR would probably be more beneficial for our kids than VR and I really like the possibilities presented by Corning’s “A Day Made of Glass 2: Same Day. Expanded Corning Vision”:
Just looking at how kids are with smartphones, I am more than a little worried about what we will see if/when there is a VR headset in every kid’s room. For one thing, our kids will stop interacting with each other (at least, relative to the varying degrees of interaction they manage today). They won’t learn to recognise those very human and physical cues we rely on for so much sub-vocal communication as a species.
Go outside and play (and channelling our parents)
Like any generation, I think this comes down to figuring out the balance of the potential of the technology with the harm it could do to our children socially. I am also acutely aware that I probably read like our parents did when we started using gaming consoles back in the day. I’m pretty sure they also lamented that we’d never go outside and play.
To a degree they may have overstated the harm of us playing video games and watching TV. I don’t think the answer is forcing our kids outside and forbidding them modern technology.
On the other hand, I think that the rapid change we witness from year to year makes our jobs as parents that much harder. We have to keep up with the changes, anticipate the risks and try and manage them as best we can.
As I said at the beginning of this post, I think the VR headset is terrific technology and it offers our kids opportunities they didn’t have before. It also has a troubling flip-side and that requires us to keep a foot in both worlds if we have any hope of raising the kinds of humans who won’t be among the first to go when some wild beast attacks because they never learned basic human survival and communication skills.