What is highly immersive technology and what does the research say about using it with children and young people?
The increasing availability of highly immersive virtual, augmented and mixed reality technology that often uses head-mounted displays (or headsets) has raised questions about its safety and ethical implications in educational settings, workplaces and for leisure. However, little is known about the impact of highly immersive experiences on children and young people.
While there is no accepted definition of ‘highly immersive’, it is reasonable to say that there are some new technologies that can create very intense feeling of presence or ‘being there’ in virtual and augmented spaces. These technologies allow for a high degree of interaction and autonomy. Different types of technologies and software applications produce different levels of feeling immersed and there is still much work to be done on categorising levels of immersion and their effects on different groups of people. As part of the VR School project we are using the Oculus Rift. This technology does offer high levels of immersion particularly in virtual environments that allow navigation, manipulation, interaction and free play.
The other day I was flying in Minecraft VR, soaring high above the landscape. I was enjoying the wonder and freedom of virtual flying, until I needed to land! As I double clicked the controller and began to descend, my stomach rose to my mouth, I gasped, closed my eyes and braced to hit the ground. When I took the headset off, I was in a crouching position, knees still bent to absorb the ‘impact’.
Highly immersive technologies create cognitive, affective and sensory experiences that can often feel very ‘real’. The reactions of people using this type of technology can range from joy to terror depending on what they are experiencing and their past history. This is why we need to think carefully and ethically about the use of such technology. This is especially true when using immersive technology with children and young people because they are at different developmental stages compared to adults and this can affect how they feel, understand and react to immersive experiences.
The problem at this relatively early stage is that there is very little research conducted with children and young people using these technologies. What research there is indicates a need to explicitly bring together evidence from the child development literature with established ethical principles and our knowledge of the affordances or features of technologies.
While there are a number of ethical principles to consider, beneficence is a key one. Beneficence focuses on the welfare of people and a commitment to ‘do no harm’, especially in relation to children and youth. So let’s consider beneficence in relation to what we do know from research on immersive technology and children.
We do know that virtual reality has been used to good effect for paediatric acute pain distraction in clinical settings although there is poorer evidence on chronic pain distraction (Shahrbanian et al., 2012). So in this instance, VR is certainly not doing harm.
There is also a documented experiment using a virtual roller coaster ride which compared the prefrontal brain arousal of adults & children (mean age 8.7 years). This experiment found that children were much more susceptible to the arousing impact of audio/visual stimuli and appeared unable to critically evaluate and monitor their experience or inhibit their sense of presence in the virtual environment. In other words, because of their developmental stage, children were more strongly drawn into the experience of the roller coaster ride. Because children were unable to regulate the intensity of the experience in the same way adults could, the authors concluded that there should be more reluctance to ‘expose children to emotional virtual reality stimuli as currently practiced’ (Baumgartner et al., 2008). Given this evidence, it is fair to say that some immersive experiences may cause distress because the developmental stage of a child’s brain does not allow it to regulate the intensity of the experience in the same way an adult brain can.
Between the ages of 3-12 years children gradually develop the ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality (Sharon & Woolley, 2004). Ask any group of children between these ages if they believe in Santa and you will find that there will be an age variation between those who believe versus those that don’t – I admit I still believed in Santa until I was 11. The ability to distinguish fantasy and reality reflects individual social and cognitive development. It is important to consider this in relation to the use of highly immersive technology.
For example, Segovia et al. (2009) found that some primary (elementary) school aged children exposed to the virtual reality environment of swimming with Orcas developed a ‘false memory’ of the experience: ‘The media richness of the mental imagery…was high enough to be confused with the richness of an event in the physical world’. Similarly in another experiment, 50% of primary school aged children believed that an experience in immersive VR was real one week after being put in the virtual environment (Stanford VHIL, 2015).
And its not just young children that we need to be concerned about. In the outdoor augmented reality game, Alien Contact, older students (aged 11-16 years) asked researchers if aliens had actually crashed at their school and if the researchers were FBI agents (Dunleavy et al., 2009).
Just because a technology can afford certain immersive experiences doesn’t mean they will be psychologically appropriate or safe for all children and young people. There are a number of aspects to consider before using immersive technologies with children and youth as the diagram below indicates:
Diagram: Conceptual framework for considering aspects of immersive environments in a developmental context (Southgate, Smith & Scevak, 2017).
It’s important that as new immersive technologies become widely adopted that educators engage with questions about their safe and ethical use in the context of what we know about the cognitive, social, moral and affective development of the child and long-held ethical principles such as beneficence. A careful, evidence-led approach is required to the use of highly immersive technologies in schools. This is part of our duty of care towards students.
If you would like to know more about ethical principles, child development and immersive technologies you can read a paper we have written on the topic. Please feel free to leave a comment or contact me if you would like to discuss.
Erica Southgate, Associate Professor of Education and VR flying aficionado.
- Baumgartner, T. et al. (2008). Feeling present in arousing virtual reality worlds: prefrontal brain regions differentially orchestrate presence experience in adults and children. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2, 8
- Dunleavy, M. et al. (2009). Affordances and limitations of immersive participatory augmented reality simulations for teaching and learning. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 18(1), 7-22.
- Segovia, K. & Bailenson, J. (2009). Virtually true: Children’s acquisition of false memories in virtual reality. Media Psychology, 12(4), 371-393.
- Shahrbanian, S. et al. (2012). Use of virtual reality (immersive vs. non immersive) for pain management in children and adults: A systematic review of evidence from randomized controlled trials. European Journal of Experimental Biology, 2(5), 1408-1422.
- Sharon, T. & Woolley, J.D. (2004). Do monsters dream? Young children’s understanding of the fantasy/reality distinction. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 22(2), 293-310.
- Southgate, E., Smith, S.P. & Scevak, J. (2017). Asking ethical questions in research using immersive virtual and augmented reality technologies with children and youth. In Virtual Reality (VR), 2017 IEEE Proceedings (pp. 12-18). IEEE. (E1) http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/abstract/document/7892226/
- Stanford University Virtual Human Interaction Lab (2015). vhil.stanford.edu/news/2015/stanford-studies-virtual-reality-kids-andthe-effects-of-make-believe – accessed 19 Sept 2016.