Virtual Reality Toys … A Virtual Mistake

Before buying virtual reality games, consider these physical effects and risks for children.
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The more immersive the virtual reality experiense is, the more likely it will trigger hyperarousal and Electronic Screen Syndrome.

Are Virtual Reality (VR) toys at the top of your child’s holiday wish list? "Trusted Reviews" is calling 2016 the year of virtual reality, but the question is: should it be? According to medical professionals (and my own personal experience) this toy should stay on the store shelf and not make it into your shopping basket this holiday season.

Have you tried a VR toy yet? I have.

As I began to evaluate the VR world, I did what every smart parent does before they buy a new tech toy for their kids: I tried it out for myself. Strapping the device onto my face was a bit strange. A claustrophobic feeling came over me and it was dark and uncomfortable, nothing like the exciting toy it’s presented to be in the holiday commercials. Once the game started, I quickly became nauseated and unstable. To be sure, my first experiment with virtual reality glasses was short lived! I then consulted with many health professionals, and relied on my knowledge of brain science and medical research to get solid footing and facts.

Here are a few tips and facts about VR:

Undeveloped brains: Children’s brains are underdeveloped and have a hard time distinguishing between reality and virtual reality. Likewise, they are unable to manage impulses, risks, or use common sense when it comes to judgment and logic. The most important play for children is real play, because they utilize their imagination and five senses while learning to interact with others.

Holding screens too close to eyes: Research tell us that kids already spend an average of 7.5 hours per day on a screen.

“The added exposure to blue light kids receive from computers and digital devices and how close these electronic screens are to a child's eyes for hours each day have many eye care providers worried about potential eye damage over time,” according to Gary Heiting, doctor of optometry, writing in allaboutvision.com.

Considering a VR screen is roughly two inches away from a child's face, there is great concern over the effect this is having on the brain, as well as the potential eye strain.

Negative brain effects:  The brain effects of intense screen stimulation are likely to be greatly magnified at such close range according to Victoria Dunckley, MD, child psychiatrist and child screen-time expert.

“Intense sensory input from video games, including bright artificial light, vivid colors, and rapid movement, coupled with a highly immersive yet artificial experience takes a toll on processing, depleting mental reserves and causing ‘brain drain.’ Transitioning back to the real world creates work for the brain, too. We know that the more immersive the experience is, the more likely it will trigger hyperarousal and what we call Electronic Screen Syndrome — a 'short circuiting' of the brain’s frontal lobe resulting in impaired mood, focus, and behavior. This poses a higher risk for addictive use at the same time.  We can expect all these side effects to be magnified by games that use VR” Dunckley says.

She stresses that VR is not for kids. “The risk of prolonged stress reactions, disturbed sleep, out-of-sync circadian rhythms and desensitized reward pathways is high enough with regular gaming; VR will take that risk to a whole new level. Do you think Mark Zuckerberg and his pediatrician wife will be letting their daughter wear the Oculus Rift? I doubt it.”

Accidents: Colliding with the real world during the VR experience is perhaps the most significant concern with VR toys. When kids put the VR glasses on, there is a sensation that they are in another world and the brain doesn’t know that this is entirely fabricated. If they are “virtually” running in the game, their body feels as if it is actually running. It is likely they will start moving with little awareness and can easily crash into a nearby table, fall down the stairs or off a bunk bed. In a video I viewed at a recent medical conference, the children were running into furniture, breaking lamps, and walking (or should I say falling) around like they were impaired with alcohol or experiencing vertigo.

Adult content: While some VR games may be safer if the parent commits to sit with their child on the couch–holding them down when he is attempting to fly like Superman or jump off a virtual building–the potential for sexual, dark or violent content to become part of the VR experience is very serious. One marketing professional revels that because the VR experience is not “catching on” as easily with kids due to more physical side effects than originally anticipated, the focus will likely shift to increased porn applications for adults.

Lingering symptoms: The truth is, the effects of this experience do not subside when the game is over. After the child disconnects from the VR game, the brain must begin the process of readjusting. Some after-effects include headaches, disorientation, and hand-eye coordination problems.

​Potential for overuse: Just as video games are a very addictive form of entertainment, VR games have great potential to draw children in and set them up for yet another addictive entertainment screen habit, all while playing in isolation I may add.

Unknown effects: This new “play” technology is in the experimental stages. We have no longterm studies on the consequences on developing brains, but we do know the wonderful medical and social benefits of more traditional real play.

While VR may be the latest technology, this toy is not considered healthy play or nor is it essential for childhood development. Since all kids (big and little) need to experience the benefits of real play and human interaction you can confidently replace the VR games on the holiday list this year with gifts of real play: non-screen board games, bikes, art supplies, music instruments, and of course, anything that builds family attachment.