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Now is the time to make virtual reality safer for kids.

Virtual reality (VR) brings the outside world in, and replaces real-life experiences with immersive, digital environments. VR technology is not new, but historically it has been expensive and inaccessible. In 2018, Common Sense found that only one in five U.S. parents reported having a VR device in the home, and the majority were not planning to purchase one. Children's interest in VR devices, however, was much higher than their parents (71%!), and parents admitted that their kids' wishes could encourage them to make a purchase. As kids' desire for immersive tech increases, and it becomes less expensive to create, we can expect this to be a motivator in getting more affordable options on the market. Now is the time to think about the potential tensions among privacy, healthy virtual behavior, and parental controls.

Although kids are interested in VR, a lack of research makes it difficult to understand the impact of immersive tech on developing brains, and experts warn that VR is especially influential on kids because the experience can be so up close and visceral. As more kids get access to VR, these new platforms and VR developers need to make special considerations for VR games and experiences when creating them for children.

In addition to developmental concerns, VR platforms and apps collect enormous amounts of data from users, and companies have a greater responsibility in protecting kids' personal information. And, as with all social games and platforms, parents shouldn't be solely responsible for making sure their kids are safe and secure online.

As companies like Facebook and PlayStation rapidly release new VR products -- both hardware and immersive apps -- we expect they will only grow in popularity, and VR products will get more sophisticated and realistic. Immersive tech has great potential: For example, VR can be an effective tool for encouraging empathy among children and connecting with friends. However, managing the potential impact of virtual reality on kids will depend not only on parental oversight, but also on how responsibly tech companies handle children's data and understand children's developmental concerns.

To guide tech companies' decisions as they create content aimed at kids, Common Sense has some clear recommendations for ways to ensure kids experience these technologies in a safe, secure, and responsible environment:

  • Parental controls should be effective and account for the unique features of VR games, such as its immersive nature. For example, providing clear time-limit mechanisms to prevent overuse.
  • VR platforms must create safer virtual environments. We need a strong set of standards for rating and moderating VR experiences so families can choose what is appropriate for their child(ren).
  • Companies must step up their protection of kids' data, especially because immersive tech like VR requires the collection of so much sensitive behavioral information.

Common Sense has a history of advocating for a healthy online environment, and that includes promoting strong privacy protections for kids and supporting digital well-being. Responsible creation of new technologies means being proactive about addressing potential harms posed by products and platforms as they're evolving, and we hope VR app developers and tech companies follow our recommendations.

For more on our guidelines for VR developers, check out our white paper, Safe and Secure VR: Policy Issues Impacting Kids' Use of Immersive Tech.

Jennifer Peters
Jen Peters (she/her) is the Senior Advocacy Manager at Common Sense Media, where she supports the organization's advocacy campaigns and initiatives on various issues related to kids and technology. Jen previously managed public safety and community aquatic programs for the University of California, Berkeley and the East Bay Regional Park District. As an Americorps member, she oversaw education-based programs for Playworks Northern California. Jen was born and raised in the Bay Area, and has a bachelor's degree in Human Development, with a focus on women's development, from California State University, East Bay.