Virtual reality uses computer hardware and software to create an immersive artificial environment that looks and sounds as if you are there.
Often, you can interact with and navigate this environment by using a headset and handheld controllers loaded with sensors that track your head and hand movements. Coupled with emerging haptic or touch devices that create the sensation of feeling the environment, this technology provides a realistic and high-sensory experience.
Quest Pro, Oculus Quest, Oculus Rift S, HTC Vive, PlayStation VR and Valve Index are examples of headsets. They can be used for virtual reality (VR) games and experiences that users can engage with on their own, with their friends, or with other users they may not know.
VR platforms that enable exploration and interaction with others, such as Fortnite, Minecraft, Rec Room and Roblox and VRChat, are sometimes referred to as the ‘metaverse’ or ‘metaverse environments’.
Using immersive experiences for educational benefit is nothing new – we’ve been able to get a feel for the sights, sounds and sensations of bygone eras through field trips and multimedia exhibitions for decades.
While no one knows what the metaverse will become, it’s possible that soon we’ll also be able to access essential services such as medical appointments, or even experience virtual trips into space – all through immersive environments.
Immersive technologies already enable social interactions – like gaming with others – and allow us to do things like attend concerts or visit different places such as museums or world heritage sites, all recreated virtually.
However, as with all types of digital technology, they can be used for harms such as cyberbullying, and even simulated assaults or violence can have real physical and mental impacts.
Immersive worlds can help children learn, play and be creative. However, they can also carry risks and harms.
The more stimulating technology is, the harder it can be for children (and adults), to disconnect from virtual environments and re-engage with activities and relationships in the real world.
In addition, safety manuals warn that children’s use of headsets – and prolonged use by people of all ages – can affect vision and coordination.
Consider age recommendations for product use. Several VR headsets come with manufacturer guidelines that state their headsets are not suitable for children under 13. Users should also review the classification of apps and immersive environments accessed using the headset to make sure it’s age appropriate.
What to look for
Parents, carers, adults and those who make VR devices all have a responsibility to help children use immersive technologies and interact in virtual environments safely.
If you’re thinking of gifting technologies that can take your children into highly immersive worlds, here are some things you need to think about and look out for before purchasing:
Is it age appropriate?
What age has the device and content been designed for? Consider manufacturer guidelines and the classification of apps and immersive content accessed using the headset to make sure it’s age appropriate.
Is it widely accessible?
Can settings be adjusted so people of varying abilities, ages or languages can use it?
Is it able to be used in a safe space?
Children should have a safe physical space in which to use the device. Using VR requires a certain amount of clear space to avoid injury. VR spaces for children should be a shared, supervised environment, such as a living room. VR devices are usually built around a headset. The user wears the headset, and the screen inside gives the user the ability to ‘see’ the virtual environment. However, these headsets can make people dizzy and cause them to lose their balance. The area where a person uses a VR headset should be clear of obstacles that could injure them if they fall or spin out of control.
What privacy settings are available?
Does the device watch or listen to users via cameras or microphones? Settings to manage tracking for things like cameras or microphones are important for privacy and safety. Access to cameras, microphones and any tracking should be turned off by default. There should also be features that allow the user to manage settings according to their needs. No matter what your age, if you are using an immersive technology, check what information you are sharing and who you are sharing it with.
What communication is available?
Can users play or talk with other people when using it? Communication settings should be turned off by default and adjusted by the user as appropriate for their needs. Users should also have access to a broad range of safety tools and settings to prevent and report unwanted or unsafe contact.
What data is collected?
Does the device collect personal information? What does it collect and how is it used or shared? Users should have access to a broad range of safety tools and privacy settings to manage and minimise data collection and use. An immersive technology device or platform is likely to record vast amounts of personal and biometric data (such as body poses and eye movements) and other data, which could put you at risk.
Are there virtual safety zones?
In immersive environments, conduct, contact and content risks are becoming increasingly blurred. In addition to being exposed to inappropriate content by unknown people, users may have life-like interactions and experiences with them. Consider whether there is access to safe zones within the platform. These allow users to take a moment away from other people and the virtual environment, giving them an opportunity to report harmful or inappropriate content, contact or communication and mute or block other users.
What safety features are available?
Are you able to quickly navigate and access safety features to quick exit or manage virtual environments? This includes the ability to report harmful or inappropriate content, contact or communication and mute or block other users.
How to stay safe
Immersive technologies and environments, while offering a range of opportunities and benefits in areas such as entertainment, education and health, can pose several safety challenges.
Understand the world your child is entering
Check out the technology and each of the specific apps, games or environments they want to access before allowing your children to use them.
Set up the parental controls
Services should have parental and carer control information available in device or on the product website. For example, information is available for Oculus, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR. Ensure that safety and privacy settings are on, and that your child knows how to use safety tools and how to seek guidance and support when something isn’t right or they need help.
It’s often possible to monitor activity by ‘casting’ or ‘mirroring’ what is on your child’s headset onto the family TV or another screen. Instructions on how to do this are available on service websites, including HTC Vive and how to cast to a screen with Meta Quest. Passcode locks can also be helpful. VIVE Guardian lets parents lock children’s VR hardware, preventing them from accessing or downloading unauthorised content.
Protect your child's identity
Most immersive environments allow users to identify themselves using avatars and screen names instead of their real image and name. Help your child choose an avatar and screen name that reflects their creativity in an age-appropriate way that doesn’t give away too much information about their real selves to others.
Consider your child's developmental stage
Consider your child’s developmental stage and the types of activities you allow them to do in the real world. There is concern that children could be exposed to harm, particularly if they are interacting with adult users, or having age-inappropriate or violent experiences. Children and young people who are still developing the critical reasoning skills to recognise virtual risks may be more easily influenced and manipulated by the avatars of other users in an exciting, hyperrealistic environment.
Encourage regular breaks
For both children and adults, using stimulating technologies (like headsets, goggles and haptics) can cause motion sickness. Limit use and take regular breaks. Some people may experience dizziness, seizures or other issues brought on by light flashes or patterns while experiencing VR or watching video screens. If you are experiencing these symptoms, discontinue use of VR devices immediately and seek medical attention. If your child has had these symptoms in the past while using VR devices, playing video games, or while watching TV, they should be checked by a doctor before using this device.
Check safety settings
Before using the device, be sure to read the manufacturers' safety warnings and refer back to them as your child develops. Keep checking on settings to make sure you understand what’s available and that settings are appropriate for your child’s use. Settings might also be adjusted based on needs. You can find further information on these websites: HTC Vive, Meta Oculus headsets, PlayStation VR, Valve Index.
Use virtual boundaries
Where possible, choose landscapes and games that create a set distance in the virtual environment between participants. This stops others being able to ‘touch’ or physically interact with your child via sensors. For example, Horizon Worlds has introduced a safety feature called ‘Personal Boundary’ that can be accessed in the Settings menu. Personal Boundary provides 1.2 metres between your child and other avatars and will remain on by default for non-friends.
Setting expectations with your child around immersive technology use should be approached in the same way as for any screen time. Communicating clearly and agreeing on appropriate and balanced use is important. See our page about screen time for some useful tips.
Watch out for signs of harm
Just like in all spaces, it’s important to look out for signs of distress and changes in behaviour in your child. This could mean your child is experiencing bullying or abuse online.