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Five Ethical Considerations For Using Virtual Reality with Children and Adolescents

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The tragic events of Sept. 11 live in the American mind as a series of jarring television images: the second plane striking, the billowing smoke, the falling bodies, and the final collapse of the monolithic towers in a thick cloud. Audiences from around the world were glued to their screens as they watched the chaos unfold, left to wonder at the unimaginable horrors experienced by those trapped inside. Little was left to the imagination when, in 2015, a controversial virtual reality simulator titled 08:46 put users in the perspective of an office worker trapped in the World Trade Center.

Supporters of the experience see it as a path towards empathy for the victims and as an immersive recreation of a pivotal historical event. Detractors feel that it is an unnecessary indulgence in horror and tragedy. But where do we draw the line? Is it acceptable to watch real falling bodies on the news, but morally questionable to undertake immersive fictional re-creation? Now that virtual reality (VR) is here, and here to stay, this sticky ethical dilemma is only one of many moral conundrums to come, especially in regard to the use of this revolutionary technology with children and teens. VR may have unprecedented value to education, but that very same power must be managed responsibly.

Since humans learned to control fire, technology has proven to be a double-edged sword, and VR is no exception. The same flames that gave us light, warmth and hot meals burned down entire cities. VR is not new; but its use in the past 50 years has been restricted to high tech labs in military, academia and industry. But today the technology has finally reached the masses. In an address to the VRX conference in San Francisco, noted game developer and tech wizard, Jesse Schell predicted that over 8 million VR gamer headsets will be sold in 2016. Facebook purchased Oculus Rift, presumably laying the groundwork for a future where friends and family will interact in rich virtual spaces. All the major players, including Microsoft, Sony, Samsung, Google and an HTC and Valve partnership are jostling for the consumer headset market. This means homes and school now have easy access to a technology that, less than a decade ago, seemed limited to the sci-fi realms of Star Trek and the X-Men.

Virtual Reality in Schools

Mark Suter teaches computer science and game design at Elida High School in Elida, Ohio. He’s been experimenting with VR in his classes as part of a project piloted by Seattle-based foundry10, a privately funded research organization that creates partnerships with educators to implement, research and explore the various intersections of emerging technologies and learning, including VR. Suter’s students both evaluate and design content for VR, and the 9/11 experience was available for those who wanted to try it. “I didn’t ask students to participate, but some wanted to try, and a few of those were emotionally moved,” Suter said. “They stated, ‘I knew it happened, but I never thought about what it was like for the people at the office that day. That felt horrible.’ This is both a flag to be watched closely for ethics violations, but also a testament of the platform’s immersion potential.”


And the technology’s potential for good is vast. It has already been used to help with autism, improve personal financial management, treat PTSD and manage pain. More and more news outlets, including the New York Times, are adopting immersive journalism, where news stories can be experienced through VR.

As an educational tool, VR might prove transformative. Google Expeditions allows students to take over 100 virtual journeys from ancient Rome to the surface of Mars. It might also have a big impact on social emotional learning (SEL), as VR’s unique ability to produce empathy recently led Wired magazine to explore its potential as “the ultimate empathy machine”. Addressing a persistent anxiety, Suter used Samsung Gear’s Public Speaking Simulator to successfully prepare a few nervous students for class presentations, reporting they felt “much more calm” during the live delivery.

Tim Neal, who teaches communication technology at Orangeville District Secondary School in Orangeville, Canada, is also part of the foundry10 project and, like Suter, has implemented VR extensively in his program. He collaborated with English teachers at his school to use Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, a playful bomb defusing game that encourages communication and critical thinking. Neal also reports a great deal of success with Tilt Brush, a powerful 3-D art creation tool. A talented artist in his class was normally reluctant to share her work, but had a transformative experience using Tilt Brush. “When I'm using VR all I can see is my artwork, I'm fully immersed,” she said. “I can't see if other people are watching, even though I'm sure they are, and I don't care because I'm in my own world making my own art with no restrictions.”

Neal has used Tilt Brush with Syrian refugees and developmentally delayed students and notes that it “transcends language and ability and has no restrictions with regards to insecurity or ability.”

Suter is also enthusiastic about Tilt Brush. “Students described it as having the feeling they had when they were a kid playing in a sandbox, with no stresses or concerns. It was therapeutic," Suter said. "Students that were normally reserved and quiet found that the inhibitions of being embarrassed or doing the wrong thing suddenly vanished. They were moving and creating in the middle of a classroom full of their peers, where five minutes before they would have hesitated to raise their hand to give a response.”

Ethical Considerations

These early classroom adoptions are promising, but it might be advisable to test the waters with our virtual toes, before hurling headlong into the digital ocean. Lisa Castaneda, co-founder and CEO of foundry10, tempers her wholehearted belief in the potential for the technology, with a mindful approach towards ethical implementation. “We need to be conscious of the psychological and physiological impacts. It is very easy to say, ‘Oh, the graphics on this one aren't so good; they know it isn't real.’ That is likely true, but the fascinating thing about the brain is that it still responds as if it is real. As educators, we need to be very aware of this and mindful of what experiences we choose to share with students.”

The body’s response to the virtual as if it were real is known as the illusion of embodiment. In a recently published article, researchers Michael Madary and Thomas K. Metzinger from Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany review a series of ethical considerations when implementing VR. The illusion of embodiment may provide VR’s greatest value to education, but also lies at the heart of its ethical implementation. Madary and Metzinger believe that VR is not just an evolution from television and video game screens, but a revolution that will have an enormous social impact. In their paper, they claim that:

VR technology will eventually change not only our general image of humanity but also our understanding of deeply entrenched notions, such as “conscious experience,” “selfhood,” “authenticity,” or “realness.”

The implications, then, are not only social, but drive to the core of our being by affecting the very notions of identity and self-perception.

It’s important to remember that many current VR uses in schools, like Google Expeditions, are not interactive VR, but simply 360-degree video experiences. In these cases, students experience immersive 3D pictures or panoramas, but do not deeply interact with the content. The illusion of embodiment is a product of interactive content and motion tracking, where users can alter and affect their environment and engage with others who share their virtual space. Headsets like the Vive and Occulus Rift fall under this latter category, but it won’t be long before most, if not all, consumer oriented VR technology will be completely immersive and interactive.

Madary and Metzinger lay out ethical guidelines for VR research, but also make recommendations for everyday public use. Educators and parents should be aware of these before children and adolescents take the plunge, and it’s worth adding that they also apply to adults. These five areas are by no means exhaustive and in some cases they are speculative, but they address some of the more pressing issues to look out for as VR headsets enter day-to-day use.

1. Long-Term Effects and Prolonged Exposure

What little research has been undertaken on the psychological and physiological effects of VR has occurred in clinical settings and has only studied short-term use. There is no research on the long-term effects of VR on children, nor on the effects of prolonged exposure. It’s not uncommon for school-aged children and adolescents to spend dozens of hours a week consuming media and playing games, but what will happen when VR goggles are added to the mix? Madary and Metzinger flag addiction, manipulation of agency, unnoticed psychological change and mental illness as some potential hazards of prolonged exposure. This is of particular relevance to youth because their developing minds and bodies may, for better or worse, be deeply susceptible to the power of immersive technology.

Presumably, uses in schools would be limited in time and scope, but the availability of high-end gear at home will raise all the same questions about prolonged levels of use and addiction that have dogged the internet, video games and other media, especially since VR is likely to merge with all of the above. Associations like the United States Public Health Service and the American Academy of Pediatrics do not currently have guidelines in regard to VR. In the meantime, parents and teachers should curate content, limit exposure and monitor responses and reactions.

2. The Impact of Environment on Agency and Behavior

Research in psychology supports the notion that our surroundings, both social and structural, exert subtle effects on our behavior. Our senses regularly relay environmental cues that inform and affect our attitudes and reactions. This sensitivity to context has been identified in some of the most famous studies in psychology, including the Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram’s obedience experiment, where participants were unconsciously coerced to apply what they thought were painful electric shocks to fellow participants.

This is of enormous consequence to VR, where users operate in immersive artificial environments. As the German researchers note, our day-to-day surroundings are relatively stable, but we don’t really know how our minds and bodies will respond to diverse and rapidly changing virtual worlds, potentially leading to any number of unintended consequences. The results may be positive or negative, but as it stands, research on specifics is scant to non-existent.

As our responses are better understood, virtual worlds can be deliberately designed for specific outcome, but this is also ethically loaded. On one hand, environments can be created to encourage empathy, joy, fulfillment and any number of pro-social emotions and outcomes. But where does our true nature end and the engineering of emotions begin? Also, and more nefariously, these contexts can also be manipulated to give users the illusion of being in full control of their decisions, but subtle and unnoticed environmental cues can unwittingly lead us to alter our political and religious views, and open new horizons for commercial exploitation. This, of course, could disproportionately impact children, perennial targets for advertisers due to their susceptibility and the influence they exact on their parents.

There is also the danger of what is termed social hallucination, or the perception that we’re having rich social (albeit virtual) interactions with an avatar guided by artificial intelligence. Again, these false friends can reshape our views and influence how we spend our hard earned dollars.

Once again, there is a need to proceed with caution in order to make sure the use of the technology with students and children falls on the side of good. Research, awareness, regulation and monitored use would all prove beneficial.

3. Aggravating Preexisting Psychological or Emotional Issues

No two human beings are alike and most people regularly cycle through a wide range of complex emotions and mindsets. Disposition has a significant effect on how individuals receive media, and has complicated studies that explore the effects of media, as content and media will affect different people in different ways at different times. In some cases, VR use might trigger or aggravate preexisting and latent emotional or psychological disorders. For this reason, it is important to screen individuals before subjecting them to VR experiences, and monitor them while the sessions are in progress, as what might be emotionally productive for one may prove devastating to another.

It’s also important to contextualize sessions with debriefs and discussions. “A student's past experience and knowledge level also has an impact,” Castaneda said. “Even with things such as being up high in the air, seeing a large creature, or being under water, we've seen situations with students where those triggered anxiety and discomfort. So, although most educators would not put their students in really intense scenarios in VR, from an ethics standpoint, it is really, really important that educators be aware of some of the psychological research.”

As previously mentioned, VR has already proven effective in treating PTSD, for one, and will likely be leveraged to produce further mental health benefits. The potential for VR to assist rather than aggravate, however, hinges on its judicious use based on empirical research.

4. (Un)Reality and Diminished Real World Interactions

Although we currently inhabit diverse and absorbing media ecologies, few will argue with the notion that the real world still has much to offer. There are many advantages or “enhancements” to interacting socially in virtual environments, but existing technology is still only an approximation of the nuanced, multisensory tangibility of real life. We have evolved to receive the subtleties of scent, body language, tactility and the vast complexities of the natural world, and their loss or imperfect substitution may have detrimental consequences. For example, limited and potentially superficial social interactions in virtual spaces -- such as reductive “liking” on Facebook -- may become normalized and we could, theoretically, collectively lose the knowledge and memory of the intricacies of face-to-face communication. However, on the plus side, these virtual and online spaces also enable reclusive, anti-social, geographically isolated and disabled or disfigured individuals to partake in a rich social life that may be otherwise limited or unavailable.

Madary and Metzinger speculate that heavy VR use may lead to dissociative conditions like Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder, a sort of dream-like state that produces a sense that either ones body or one’s surroundings are not real. They write that “Heavy users of VR may begin to experience the real world and their real bodies as unreal, effectively shifting their sense of reality exclusively to the virtual environment.” VR’s capacity to blur the real and the unreal can also deepen the propensity children have to mix-up fantasy with reality.

“The most advanced headsets are not recommended for younger children, for a variety of reasons,” Castaneda said. “One of the most interesting cases that we’ve seen that younger children have a difficult time separating virtual reality from reality. They struggle to frame, particularly at first, the fact that they just saw dinosaurs and are now in the living room.” Castaneda advises that it’s important to err on the side of caution and deliver age-appropriate experiences, which should be discussed beforehand, contextualized and include a debrief upon completion.

5. Privacy and Data Gathering

Data and education have a tentative relationship. The prospect of granular assessment using all types of data from keystrokes to heartbeats holds the promise of better understanding and responding to the individual needs of our students. Yet, that same data can fall into the wrong hands, now or later, with life-altering consequences. The relationship between data and privacy is quickly emerging as one of the defining social questions of the 21st century, and VR will likely take the debate to the next level. The further we merge with the virtual world, a condition that is now upon us, the more data we will release, often without our knowledge or consent.

As social networks and the Internet become virtual, 3-D spaces, we will more closely identify with and be identified by our online avatars, whose use and misuse raise complex questions about identity, ownership and privacy. Madary and Metzinger use a basic case to offer a small glimpse at the brewing legalities pertaining to our online selves: “Say a user creates an avatar that is similar but not pixel-for-pixel identical to another user’s avatar. Where precisely should we draw the line between theft and acceptable similarity?” Where, indeed? As is already the case, technology is advancing faster than legal systems and legislation can keep up, and pervasive VR use will only widen the gap.

Another privacy concern forwarded by the German researchers is that, if our online avatars mirror our real-world movement and gestures, these “motor intentions” and the “kinematic fingerprints” of our unique movement signatures can be tracked, read and exploited by advertisers or other predatory entities. Virtual environments will respond to our body language, occasioning laser precise targeted advertising and “neuromarketing,” including the strategy of putting us in the very ads and commercials that we are exposed to.

Of course, it’s not all gloom and doom, because these same technologies can help read our moods for more productive mental health counseling and treatment, as well as enhance health care in general. It also may help realize the elusive dream of truly differentiated instruction, making learning a happier and more equitable place.

Rather than sparking a new moral panic a la comic books, rock 'n' roll and video games, the use of VR in homes and schools calls for ongoing awareness and responsible citizenship, enlisting the democratic process to ensure that appropriate, research-based and ethical laws and regulations are in place to enhance the benefits and minimize the potential harm of VR technology. As in all instances of media use, parents and teachers should apply media and digital literacy best practices. This includes being involved, mindful and informed of their children’s media use, encouraging critical thinking and frequently dialoging about their experiences.


“We feel that the most interesting and creative uses of VR will come from this open, engaged dialogue between educators and their students,” Castaneda said. “If we are willing to allow ourselves to think a bit more broadly, VR may be a viable avenue for true shifts in how we think about learning.”

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