The Ethics of VR : Inside a Child’s Virtual World — Part I

Oct 3, 2017 · 4 min read

Children’s Media Conference, 2017

As Exec Producer of the VR thread at Children’s Media Conference this year, it was evident that a discussion on ethics, policy and best practice when designing VR content for children was at the forefront of many industry minds. This is the first in a series of points of view, ideas and discussion that took place at CMC around the ethics of Virtual Reality and children…

The very mention of Virtual Reality + children is divisive and polarizing. Concerns around ophthalmic health, cognitive and sensory overload, isolation, immersion and addiction have been at the forefront of every conversation around children in VR and with growing attention on new platforms such as VR, AR and mixed realities, there is increasing pressure on broadcasters, IP owners and digital producers to understand its impact on pre-school and 6- to 12-year-old audiences. This session explored the challenges and possibilities of Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality for children with leading researchers and content producers discussing how the children’s media industry should approach alternate realities to create the best experiences for their brands and audiences, and how best to address concerns over safety and child development. Moderated by Guardianfreelance journalist, Stuart Dredge and produced by Christina Colbeck of eOne, we brought together Marc Goodchild — Head of Digital Strategy & Product , EMEA — Turner Broadcasting, Professor Mark Mon-Williams, Professor of Cognitive Psychology — Leeds University along with Dr. Dylan Yamada-Rice, Senior Research Manager — Dubit.

The session began with Stuart Dredge addressing that VR is a buzz in consumer technology but has been under-discussed in terms of what it means for children’s media and education and is a very sensitive subject: one that the manufacturers of VR headsets have swerved entirely by stipulating a 12–13 age limit. He went on to explain that this isn’t a panel of VR evangelists, but rather a team focused with the focus firmly on research: what do we actually know, and what are we trying to learn, about VR and children, but also, how can broadcasters and producers influence the ethical guidelines and regulations around this space?

Stuart kicked off with scene-setting statistics. There’s been a lot of hype and excitement around VR, but in terms of actual headset sales the market remains young. Research firm SuperData claim that 6.3 million VR headsets were shipped in 2016, although that didn’t include the Google Cardboard headsets, which hit around 5 million — so we’re talking less than 12 million new VR headsets on people’s faces in 2016. Around 84% of the VR headsets shipping at the moment are the ones that use smartphones, and cost less than £80, so when we’re thinking about how many children might have access, this isn’t so much about headsets that cost hundreds of pounds. However, there are big numbers predicted. Research firm IHS Markit estimates that consumer spending on VR entertainment will grow from $310m in 2016 to $3.3bn by 2020 — at which point it suggests 81 million people will own a VR headset. A sobering stat: it predicts 86% of that spending will be on games, leaving other forms of entertainment and education to compete for 14% of the market — although that is still more than $460m.

Other early data: Google said earlier this year that people using its Daydream VR system were watching about 40 minutes of content a week, but well over 50% of that is 360-degree and VR videos on YouTube, and research firm Juniper Research claims that more than 95% of apps for mobile VR headsets are downloaded for free — so fairly parallel to the smartphone apps market. With these stats as the backdrop, there is clear interest from children’s media companies in this market which means that conversations about ethics and best practices and what VR content means for children must be at the forefront of these discussions.

Enhancement or Disruption of Motor Skills & Learning?

Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Leeds University, Mark Mon-Williams highlighted some of the health issues around VR and children, and flagged potential concerns about visual stress and possible ways that learning within a VR environment could disrupt the performance of real life skills. Mark explained that children are constantly changing, in terms of their body size and the organization of their brains, and suggested that there has been too little consideration of the developing child as the user. It’s true that many problems can be designed and engineered out and VR can be a fantastic tool to decrease and address problems related to physical and mental health, but we are missing a lot of tricks by not considering how to utilize this technology to avoid potential problems and ultimately help the developing child. Mark pointed out that children are already interacting with a lot of computer technology and this may be creating visual stress and musculoskeletal problems through bad posture.

He suggested that a proper consideration of designing VR for children might actually improve the outcomes for children and adults who spend a lot of time interacting with computers — but it’s evident that more solid research is required to ensure that VR is optimally designed for children.

If you’re interested in the ongoing research that Dubit are conducting into VR & children, email Dubit at:

This is Part I in a series that covers the Virtual Reality Thread, Exec Produced and curated by storycentral for Children’s Media Conference, Sheffield — July 2017

Part II can be found here…


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Transmedia Storytelling, Narrative, Experience & Emotional Design, Creative Direction, Franchise Development, StoryWorld Conference

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