Can a child Oculus themself into a headache or injury? Do hours in the metaverse lead to anti-social behavior in the real world? What are the rules with virtual-reality gaming?
Just when we get used to parenting kids through video games like Fortnite and Minecraft and Roblox, kids hit an age when they want to step up to virtual reality and Oculus (designed for ages 13+). Gaming with a VR headset gets them laughing and screaming with friends and also physically moving around, which in theory should be good but...what is this doing to their eyesight? And social life? Not having grown up with the metaverse, it’s natural for us parents to be suspicious of what VR gaming might do to our tweens’ and teens’ development.
Let’s talk screentime in general.
Everyone freaked out when the American Academy of Pediatrics tried to limit screentime because, well, we’re all on screens all the damn day. The AAP has since revised screentime recs. Now they suggest you make a sensible and flexible family media plan and keep up conversations about how you can occasionally break away from your devices. Yes, that means parents limiting their own screentime too.
This is all to say that whatever your kid is looking at, you’ll want to be sure you’re devices-down during dinnertime, for instance. Also, ophthalmologists recommend that everyone, of any age, take a 20-second break from screens and books every 20 minutes to avoid eye fatigue. If your kid is complaining of a headache after gaming, they need more breaks.
Now let’s look at gaming specifically.
The argument can (and has) been made that gaming is better for kids than watching TV. It’s social. It’s engaging. It focuses on goals. There’s a competitive aspect, as in sports. And not for nothing, there are a ton of after-school clubs and summer camps based around coding and gaming, which is to say there are vast communities of people your gamer can join. My son is a high school senior hoping to major in game programming in college. It’s a giant business, so don’t dismiss gaming as a waste of time or antisocial.
There is pre-pandemic expert advice floating around that says kids should play games for no more than an hour on school days and two hours on weekends. I, personally, think that is arbitrary and turns parents into the screentime police. If you really want to set a timer, though, and limit your kid’s gaming, just come to an agreement with them before you turn that timer on. (And, I would snarkily add, ask if you could do the same for yourself when you’re binging on Netflix or scrolling Tik Tok.)
What makes VR gaming so addictive?
For VR, a player wears a special headset. “VR is a very engaging medium. It heightens feelings by making games an immersive full-body experience. Sometimes people complain that video games are too sedentary, but then they also complain that VR is too engrossing, which I find a bit funny,” says Ash Brandin, on Instagram as @thegamereducator. Brandin has made it their mission to integrate the fun, achievement focus of gaming into classrooms. “Assuming a kiddo is playing games that are age-appropriate and the discussions while gaming are appropriate, VR games can add to their life in a beneficial way.”
A warning sign to watch for, Brandin says, is a kid who struggles with feelings when play is over. “If that’s the case, take a problem-solving approach. Maybe try slightly less play time per session, or suggest that they play at a different time of day,” Brandin says. “Allow for an outside walk or quiet time after play to help a child regulate after something so stimulating.”
Because kids are up and moving while using Oculus, there is a risk of injury if they trip over furniture or run into a wall. Read all the many safety instructions that come with the set, and be sure kids have a clear space to play. (Videos of VR fails are numerous and usually feature adults who, um, get a little too into it.) Also, Jenny Radesky, M.D., one of the AAP’s lead spokespersons on the topic of digital media, says that a small percentage of children may get motion sickness while using a VR headset.
You can raise a well-rounded gamer.
Your kid does spend all day in school, so they have to be an IRL person for hours during the day. Then, it’s totally reasonable for you to expect them to come home and do homework, chores and dinner before getting into a game. Even if they game for an hour or so, it’s not that much in context—though it may seem like a lot to you, while you watch your child seemingly disappear into it.
Weekends can devolve into a gaming marathon — believe me, I know. But, says Brandin, pay attention to what your child is getting out of it. “Often, playing video games helps kids feel in control and lets them easily relate to other people,” Brandin says. “Be sure to view the enjoyment of something like Oculus as neutral. It's not a moral failing that a kid likes it, or that parents allow it. When we view video games as a valid use of time, it allows us to ‘steal’ ideas from games because they’re just another activity.”
Think about other things that you can do as a family that will also engage your kid. “Could they also get a thrill from a game of laser tag? A group hike? A flag football game?” Brandin asks. Those would vary your kid’s activities. Maybe your child is a problem-solver or loves the teamwork aspect of many games. In that case maybe scouting, or working on a giant LEGO project as a family, or taking a robotics class could hook them in.
Bottom line: Don’t shut down VR gaming out of fear that it’s bad for kids (though Common Sense Media does have concerns about the data collection from these headsets). Evaluate what it is about the gaming that’s making your child so happy, and look to provide lots of opportunities for them to find that same happiness in other ways, too. Not because games are especially dangerous, but because it’s fun to have fun!