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Virtual Reality: Are VR Headsets Safe for Children?

20-minute game risked disorientation and balance problems

VR headset children problem

Virtual Reality (VR) devices are causing serious health risks for Children and adults, by altering their brain activities.

Before the arrival of VR headsets, smartphones and LED screens were the sources of digital leisure.

However, now VR headsets have taken over smartphones and screens. These Virtual Reality headsets are much better and much loved by everyone as they offer an exciting 3D experience.

Social media companies are investing heavily in the VR field. Recently Facebook unveiled its stand-alone VR headset called ‘Oculus Go’. Google already owns a headset known as ‘Daydream view’. Both the companies are burning heaps of money to further explore the VR world. Moreover, smartphones are being created in such a way that they easily turn into VR headsets.

This latest technology is fast becoming a major part of our lives. Its fun, it’s exciting but, is the frequent use of this technology okay? What impact is it having on our health?

Scientists at the University of Leeds have researched on the matter and answered these questions. Unfortunately, the answers are not at all satisfying.

The scientists warned that the technology could pose some serious health risks to users, especially children.  According to their research, continuous use of these VR sets could activate eyesight and balance problems in young people.

“In a VR device, a virtual three-dimensional world is displayed on a 2D screen and that places the strain on the human visual system,” said Mark Mon-Williams, professor of cognitive psychology at Leeds University. “In adults, that can lead to headaches and sore eyes. But with children, the long-term consequences are simply unknown.”

The Leeds team – led by Faisal Mushtaq, an expert in human performance research – worked in close collaboration with British VR companies. And this is the first ever study carried out on this topic.

20 children aged between 8 and 12 were allowed to play a 20-minute video game that involved immersing them in Virtual Reality. Right after the game, each child was examined.

Scientists observed no serious deterioration in their eyesight. However, two children showed disrupted stereo-acuity (the ability to detect differences in distances), while one child experienced the severe worsening of balance immediately after the game. These effects were short-lived, yet alarming. Even though the children played for such a short period, the technology messed up with their brains successfully.

“This study presents one of the first ever investigations into the impact of VR use on children’s vision and balance,” said Mushtaq. “Establishing the scientific evidence base on safe usage is important if we want to ensure that children benefit from all the exciting possibilities that VR has to offer.”

The Leeds researchers wrote a detailed medium post focused on health risks offered by VR, their cause and solutions.

In real life when we change our focus from something far away to something close, our eyes help us change focus by altering where they are pointing. Our focus and eye direction are physically linked i.e. the brain system that controls our focus is linked with the system that controls our eye direction.

In the virtual world, the computer-generated images are displayed on a two-dimensional screen, forcing our eyes to focus on one location. However, the presented three-dimensional images force our eyes to change direction. As explained above, focus and eye directions are physically linked, yet, the VR headset forces us to keep our focus constant with altering eye direction. This brings pressure on the eyes and brain resulting in a headache, sore eyes, balancing problems.

After being in the virtual world for a long time, our brain gets used to the abnormal function. Therefore, immediately after the VR experience, on re-entering the real world, our brain, still adapted to the virtual world, takes some time to recover itself. Thus, resulting in balancing difficulties.

The adaption difficulty affects both adults and children, however, according to scientists; it is more problematic for children because of their underdeveloped brain.

Despite the drastic effects, hundreds of companies are investing enormously in this field. VR Games and apps are rapidly being made, film-makers are exploring the potential for documentaries and animation, Facebook and YouTube have also jumped into the game with 360 videos.

Use of VR is also expanding in the field of education. Dental students at Leed examine teeth that appear before them in VR headsets. Medical students, study tumors and wounds the same way. Hence, VR is gaining fame in every field of life.

“You can put on VR headsets and go on cycle races – exercise bikes fitted with devices that measure the effort you are putting into the race,” Mon-Williams. “You can train for tennis or for golf. And further into the future, we can expect to replace computer terminals with VR headsets.”

But the VR field should not only concentrate on creation and business, but also on Children’s health and activities.

“There needs to be an understanding of how children interact with a virtual world: how they focus on objects and how they make sense of distances in that world. The crucial point is that we should tackle these problems now by designing VR devices so that they do not cause vision or balance problems.” He added.

The Leed experts suggest that the one simple solution to the problem is to avoid the presentation of three-dimensional binocular images, yet they believe that the 3D images are also very important for some specific tasks. They also suggest that VR companies take in the notice of how we interact with Virtual Reality display and then build their devices accordingly.

Although, Virtual reality headsets are undeniably useful and beneficial, yet the health issues they pose cannot be ignored. Luckily we are aware of the short-term consequences, but with the long-term ones still unknown.

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