Parents are urged to familiarize themselves with the potential risks of virtual reality (VR), as increasingly popular headsets have likely found their way onto many Christmas wish lists.
While VR headsets have become more common gaming devices in recent years, gadgets are also closely associated with what’s known as the metaverse – a broader view of shared online spaces.
Inside the Race to the Metaverse
This has raised concerns that young people are being granted uncontrolled access to environments such as 3D chat rooms, where people wearing headsets are represented by avatars.
Kate Edwards, Acting Associate Head of Child Online Safety at the NSPCC, said: “Parents considering buying a VR headset for their child this Christmas should be aware of the risks young users currently face when they have access to what, at this point, is an unregulated world.”
A poll for the NSPCC shows that while one in five parents would buy a VR headset for their child if they could, more than two-thirds of the public aren’t convinced that child safety is a priority in the metaverse.
A child’s call reveals the potential dangers of VR worlds
The charity said the youngsters had shared their experience of virtual reality online with its advice service Childline.
A high school student said, “Recently I met a guy on my VR game, and I don’t know how I should feel about him.
“He’s really bad, like he’s always making sexual comments to me and asking me to ‘kiss’ him in-game.
“I know it’s messed up, but I love his voice, and he makes me feel like the person I prefer to be.
“No one gives me that kind of affection in the real world. I guess that’s why I use virtual reality, so I can look and be like someone I’m not, and that makes me feel good about myself.
“I think I like this guy, but I don’t know if he just likes the character I’m playing online.”
Tips for keeping children safe in RV
To help parents, the NSPCC has compiled a list of tips to keep children safe when using virtual reality:
• Make the helmet a family activity, take turns and play with it together
• Take the time to explore the helmet yourself before allowing a child to use it
• Familiarize yourself with all security features, such as parental and privacy controls
• Talk to children about how they use VR and make sure they know not to share personal information
• Set healthy limits on playing time
Ms Edwards said: “But that responsibility shouldn’t just fall on parents. Tech companies need to do more to keep children safe on existing products, as well as those they deploy in the future.
“And the government must provide a solid Online security bill that takes into account advances in technology and ensures that new devices and platforms are created with child protection at their heart.”
A new version of long-delayed legislation – designed to protect people online – was presented last monthbut greeted with concern that it has been watered down from previous government commitments.
Remember physical health as well as safety
It is also important to be aware of the physical strain virtual reality can place on a child.
OCL Vision founding partner Dr Romesh Angunawela told Sky News that it’s particularly important to consider the impact long gaming sessions can have on their eyes.
“Get them to follow the 20:20:20 rule,” he advised.
“Every 20 minutes they should give their eyes a break, either by closing them for 20 seconds or by focusing on something at least 20 feet away.”
Given the nature of virtual reality, parents should also be aware of the risks of motion sickness – and the simple perils of not being able to see your surroundings.