Growing up, you may have heard your parents scolding you for sitting too close to the TV. "You'll go blind!" or "You'll need glasses later on!" are just a couple of my parents' daily reproaches, especially after my siblings and I had spent hours conquering Super Metroid or playing countless rounds of Mortal Kombat on the old tube TV.
Though it's been determined that sitting too close to a TV won't permanently damage your kids' eyes (sorry, mom), it can cause eye strain; a common complaint for office workers that sit in front of a computer screen all day, for instance.
The marketing of VR/AR headsets as personal entertainment devices, entirely different from a TV several feet away, can make parents question how safe they are for their kids' vision. Are there significant health consequences to letting kids use VR headsets? That's what we answer in this article.
How do VR/AR headsets work?
To start, VR/AR headsets create a sense of presence in a computer-generated world by displaying images that shift perspective with head movements.
When a child plays a video game on a TV and looks at other items around the room, their eyes change how they're focusing to look at things that are near or far away. Wearing a VR/AR headset, however, means that the screen is always the same distance away, even if the objects in virtual reality seem like they're closer or farther than in reality.
This can, in simple terms, confuse the eyes as the brain tells them to look at something that is closer to the child, and the eyes try to focus on it, but the screen always remains at the same distance.
VR headsets use a specific optical arrangement to create an immersive 3D environment. The positioning of different components within the headset like lenses, screens, adjustments for interpupillary distance, field of view, eye tracking technology (if available), and display technology affect the virtual experience of the wearer.
Potential negative effects of VR/AR headsets
Considering the average weight for the most popular VR headsets on the market is almost 1.5 pounds, Dr. Nathan Cheung, a pediatric optometrist at Duke University, believes the most immediate risk of VR headset use to a child is neck strain.
Eye strain is likely to follow, as it's a common issue when focusing on a specific object for a prolonged period of time, like your computer monitor or smartphone. Most headsets use two displays to create a stereoscopic effect and give users the perception of depth.
Manufacturers have issued warnings that prolonged use of VR headsets could affect a person's ability to focus, track objects, and perceive depth. This is particularly applicable to children and their developing visual systems, though Dr. Cheung believes more research is still due before a verdict is in. "It's a new area of technology that we just don't have much data on," he said.
Have you ever used a VR headset and found yourself with a headache, dizzy, nauseous, or disoriented when you take it off? Another potential issue with children using VR/AR headsets is "cybersickness," which is a type of motion sickness associated with VR headsets.
Cybersickness can result after exposure to a VR headset, caused by the incongruity between the visual information and your body's sense of movement or position. Individuals experience cybersickness differently, with some feeling ill after a few minutes while others feel normal after using VR headsets for prolonged periods of time.
Dr. Cheung also points out different studies have shown a correlation between outdoor sun exposure and reduced risk of myopia in children. Myopia, or nearsightedness, is a common refractive error in the eyes that results in close-up subjects being easy to see and problems focusing on things that are far away.
A systematic review of 13 studies involving over 15,000 children, ages 4-14, found that outdoor light exposure significantly reduced myopia incidence. The results showed a 50% decrease in myopia incidence in children who spend at least two hours a day outdoors.
Though nearsightedness isn't reversible, it can be controlled by wearing glasses, contact lenses, or specific eye drop regimens to prevent or slow progression. Adults can permanently treat myopia with refractive surgery.
How you can prevent the negative effects
One of the biggest solutions to avoid the adverse effects of VR/AR headsets for children is limiting exposure. Setting time limits for screen time on these headsets is crucial, much like it is with other types of video games and screens.
This is, in part, why screen time is such a hot topic in child-rearing. "The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends at most two hours of screen time per day," Dr. Cheung points out. Using a VR headset, he adds, "is akin to screen time" and it should be limited.
Whether or not these recommendations are adjusted to accommodate the developing metaverse, however, is yet to be seen.
Some studies have been conducted to investigate the potential effects of VR/AR headsets on binocular vision and the development of nearsightedness, or myopia. One study, for example, found that after 40-minute trials, there was no significant evidence of detrimental effects on binocular vision or myopia development in the short term.
However, this study only focused on 40-minute time periods using the VR headset compared to the same amount of time in outdoor environments, with and without wearing the headset. As we know, some users are likely to spend far longer time using a VR headset.
The researchers did find significant thickening of the choroid, a thin layer in the eye structure, in the young adults (ages 18-45) after using the VR headset during each trial, suggesting a potential protective effect against myopia development.
The authors of the study hypothesized this was due to "convergence-induced accommodation when viewing near virtual objects which would have created a myopically defocussed retinal image of the virtual environment because of the fixed viewing distance". The opposite, choroidal thinning, is associated with the progression of myopia, or nearsightedness.
Dr. Cheung admits that he can't discourage parents from letting their kids use Apple's potential VR/AR headset. "It isn't a well-studied piece of technology in children -- so we're unsure of the negative health effects" at this time, he told ZDNET.
Presumably named Reality Pro or Reality One, the Apple headset would join an increasingly popular lineup of reality-altering wearables, with companies like Meta, HTC, and Playstation having already created their own VR/AR headsets to satisfy growing consumer demand.