Two weeks ago a report about VR use with children was published by Common Sense Media in collaboration with Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. Aimed at parents, the report details the results of an extensive parent survey carried out by Common Sense Media regarding the use of VR by children. The report was supplemented by some other new content on Common Sense Media including a post dedicated to VR in education, a short animation with tips for parents whose kids are using VR and the launch of VR content reviews on the site. In this post I want to take a look at all of these elements and offer my own insights on them as someone who has been working on the integration of VR in the classroom for a number of years now.
Before I begin I want to clarify that I have a huge amount of respect for the work being done by both Common Sense Media and the Stanford VR Lab. Over the last few years, both have been sources of inspiration for mean and I have often referenced their work (for differing reasons) during teacher training sessions, parent workshops and conference presentations. I also think that the content that CSM have produced here is incredibly important and I’m firmly in agreement with the need to gather more data on the use of VR with kids, in order to develop a better understanding of the way this technology works and the way our bodies respond to it.
I would also encourage everyone to read the Common Sense Media report in full before reading my own commentary below. You can find the report here.
The survey that underpins the CSM report paints an interesting picture of the opinions parents hold regarding VR with kids. Many of the findings are common with all forms of technology (e.g. fear of kids accessing inappropriate content, fear that they will spend too long using it) but there are additional concerns from parents relating specifically to VR (e.g. dizziness or bumping into things in the real world.) Let’s take a look at some of the report’s headlines and key statistics, many of which were pulled out for inclusion in their infographic.
“It’s all about the games” - 76% of kids are using VR to play games
This seems logical especially since the most popular headsets were found to be the PlayStation VR and the Samsung Gear. A student who uses an iPad in the classroom to create a stop motion animation, record a podcast or build a slideshow will still opt to play games on an iPad at home in their recreation time.
“Kids don’t use VR much” – 50% of those kids that use VR hadn’t in the last week.
I think the rise of social VR experiences and standalone headsets will lead to an increase in the frequency devices are accessed. This will likely feed into parental concerns regarding overuse.
“Everything in VR is more intense”
Interesting use of the word “intense” here. What the report elicits is that VR is more emotive – something I’d agree with. I’d also agree that this can be harnessed for both positive and negative effects. The report goes on to talk about VR characters being more influential than characters kids see on TV. I think that this would depend heavily on the character and the type of experience the child is engaged with. Something I think will become a bigger concern is the potential for virtual impersonation by predators within multi-user VR experiences. I discussed the transposition of this long-time online safety issue into VR ecosystem in my article vSafety.
“Most parents think VR is for older kids” - 36% chose 15 or older as the appropriate age to start using VR
This makes sense, especially when it comes to the heavier, potentially overwhelming headsets. I do think that there is a plethora of factors when trying to answer this question though, including weight and style of the HMD. We use the ViewMaster with younger students as it’s lack of headstrap means that they can remove the device at any time and not feel trapped in any way.
Surprisingly when asked what the appropriate age to start using VR was, 4% of those surveyed selected 0 – in other words they felt a baby would be fine using a VR headset. This seems to highlight a serious lack of understanding from some of the respondents of the survey…
“Some kids experience health issues when using VR” – the infographic highlights 13% bumping into something, 11% dizziness, 10% headache, 8% eyestrain
So 87% didn’t bump into things, 89% didn’t experience dizziness, 90% didn’t experience headaches and 92% didn’t experience eyestrain? The length of the VR experiences is a key factor when it comes to this section of the data. It is also worth noting that 62% of kids who use VR had never experienced any of the listed issues.
Beyond these slices of the data, there is one other aspect that I would highlight to anyone exploring the survey and the themes raised in the report overall. People that have limited or no experience of virtual reality and what it is capable of often find it very difficult to appreciate the medium since it represents such a seismic shift in the way we interact with digital content. Whilst the data shows that 14% of those surveyed have a VR headset in their home (21% for those with kids), there is no data regarding how many of those adults had any experience using VR themselves. I would imagine that a mum who has bought a Playstation VR for her son at Christmas has not spent much time with the headset on herself – after all, I know my mum never played on my Super Nintendo with me a s a kid. If the adults surveyed have not experienced virtual reality directly, I would posit that it is quite difficult for them to provide a fair opinion on statements like “Virtual Reality is socially isolating,” “Virtual Reality will help children empathize with people different from them,” or “Virtual Reality is a fun way to play together as a family.” Would they not need some frame of reference to be able to comment? Interestingly in each of these cases only a relatively small percentage of those surveyed (ranging from 12% - 29%) replied that they “Don’t know enough to say.”
Let’s play devil’s advocate – what if we replace the term “Virtual Reality” with “Coding” – would parents be qualified to answer similar questions if they lacked understanding of what coding is?
“Coding is socially isolating” – true or false?
What about if the topic had nothing to do with technology at all:
“The circus is a fun way to play together as a family”
Could you answer that if you had never been to the circus?
Whilst I’m not saying the data is incorrect, I do feel that it is inherently skewed due to the unavoidable fact that so many people are yet to experience VR first-hand.
I’d like to extend my personal thanks to Michael Robb, Director of Research at Common Sense Media, for engaging in dialogue with me about the data from the survey.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the report was supplemented by some excellent additional material on the Common Sense Media site:
What Parents Need to Know About Virtual Reality
This article from CSM’s Senior Parenting Editor Caroline Knorr highlights the release of the report and outlines some guidelines for keeping kids safe whilst using VR. These are outlined succinctly here but I do love the way they are covered in this excellent animation which was released by CSM shortly thereafter:
I always love these types of videos from Common Sense Media and will definitely be sharing this one with parents during VR themed workshops in the coming months!
VR Content Reviews
Alongside the launch of the report, Common Sense Media debuted a new section of the site dedicated to reviewing VR apps and games. This includes content for the Vive, Oculus Rift and Playstation VR but at present does not include any mobile VR apps for iOS/Android. Each review is presented in the typically thorough style of CSM, with breakdowns of any adult content, analysis of the app and suggestions for talking points it could raise within families. Excellent stuff.
Right now the range of content covered is a little limited but it’s early days and I’m sure that the VR section of CSM will grow quickly.
What the Research Says About VR in Classrooms
This piece from CSM’s Director of Education Strategy, Tanner Higgin, explores the use of VR in education, building on the conclusions of the report. He provides 5 key suggestions to educators:
1.Be especially selective when it comes to what students play.
Definitely important with regard to any media used in the classroom. The golden rule of never show a class something you haven’t reviewed in advance holds firm for VR experiences. I was recently asked to recommend something focused on robots for use with some Year 7 students. Knowing that there is an excellent 360 documentary exploring the work of Boston Dynamics inside the Within app, this was my first choice. We opted not to use it though since we rely on the kids’ own phones for VR in our secondary school and asking them to download Within would have given them access to some of the app’s more politically-charged content.
2. Focus on giving students experiences vs. delivering content
Experiential learning is the real power of VR and one of the key reasons I think it has more potential to transform education than AR. I recently wrote about the idea of Experience vs Consume for Virtual Reality Pop. Find that piece here.
3. Think of it as an engagement tool, not a silver-bullet for learning.
Is there such a thing as a “silver bullet for learning”?
VR is definitely engaging, no doubt. As with all forms of education technology, ensuring that VR has impact in the classroom relies on well-considered pedagogy. Done right, VR can be integrated within a lesson in meaningful ways. I spoke about this exact thing recently in a guest post for BETT which you can read here.
4. Use VR as an empathy-builder, but be wary when it comes to young kids.
I am a firm believer in the VR for empathy concept and we have discussed it during #CPDinVR sessions. The suggestion here is that younger kids may find it hard to recognise perspectives unlike their own due to the simple fact that they are too young to appreciate the concept. Seems logical.
5. Play-it-safe by limiting VR to shorter experiences.
I completely agree with this and at JESS Dubai we always ensure that VR experiences with students last no more than ten minutes. The only exception to this has been our Tilt Brush projects with Sixth Form students who will often want to work for longer (up to 30 minutes) when fully immersed in the creation process.
So there we have it folks. Some superb new resources to support the safe use of VR in schools and at home. I for one would like to thank Common Sense for the phenomenal effort they've put into this entire project and know that it will form a solid bedrock for VR educators like myself to build upon as the technology becomes more prevalent in schools over the next few years.