Virtual reality and other new technologies pose risks for children. It’s time to act

Almost immediately after the release of ChatGPT, an immersive artificial intelligence-based chatbot, late last year, school districts across the country restricted or blocked access to it. They cited a combination of potential negative impacts on student learning and concerns about plagiarism, privacy, and content accuracy as justification.

These districts’ reactions to ChatGPT have sparked a debate between policymakers and parents, teachers and technicians about the usefulness of this new chatbot. These reflections highlight a disturbing truth: school leaders, principals, and teachers make decisions about adopting new technologies without getting answers to fundamental questions about benefits and risks.

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Technology has the potential to modernize education and prepare students for an increasingly complex future. But the risks to children are only just being discovered. Creating a policy and regulatory framework aimed at building a deeper understanding of the benefits and risks of new technologies, and protecting children when the evidence is incomplete, is not alarmism, but responsible practice.

Why act now?

First, recent history has shown that new technologies can pose real risks to children. There is evidence of a correlation between time spent on social media and anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide in adolescents. These effects appear to be particularly significant for teenage GenZ girls. While there is debate among researchers about the extent of this impact, the state of adolescent mental health has deteriorated to the point where it was declared a national emergency in 2021 by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association. Social media seems to be a factor.

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The story goes on

Second, immersive technologies, including virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality, and brain-computer interfaces, can amplify the benefits and risks for children. Immersive technologies have the potential to fundamentally reshape teaching and learning. But the impact on child development of multi-sensory experiences that replicate the physical world in digital spaces is only just beginning to be understood — and there is cause for concern, based on limited research. For example, a 2021 study concluded that immersive virtual reality can interfere with the development of the coordination that allows children to maintain balance. And a 2021 review of 85 studies on the effects of virtual reality on children found evidence of cognitive problems, difficulty navigating real and virtual worlds, and addiction. The most significant risk may be how frequent and long-lasting virtual environments affect mental health.

Third, the digital divide has narrowed significantly. Government and the private sector have driven improvements in Internet access in schools, expanded cell phone networks, and made mobile and computing devices significantly more affordable. Since 2014/15, the percentage of teenagers owning a smartphone has increased from 73% to 95%. Coupled with money from COVID-19 legislation that allowed schools to invest in hardware, more children than ever before will have access to older innovations — including apps and the internet — at home and had at school.

Based on new evidence of these impacts on children, and in the face of significant unknowns, a policy and regulatory framework focused on risk mitigation is warranted – while still allowing children to access the benefits of these technologies. At the federal level, Congress should consider:

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All emerging tech companies, including those making immersive reality products used by children, must allow academic researchers access to their data.

Require all immersive reality companies to value the privacy and protection of children when designing any product or service they offer.

Require all immersive reality companies to provide child development training to employees working on products intended for use by children.

Requirement for hardware manufacturers of virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality and brain-computer interface devices aimed at children to prominently display warnings on their packaging about unknown risks to physical and mental health .

Creating guidance through the Department of Education for district and school leaders to prepare their communities for immersive technology adoption.

All immersive technology companies must inform users about product placement within the platform.

Force federal agencies to clarify how existing laws such as the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act apply to immersive technologies.

Require all immersive technology companies to obtain parental consent for sharing data, particularly biometric information, including eye scans, fingerprints, handprints, facial geometry, and voiceprints.

Providing minimum age guidelines for the use of immersive technology platforms and products.

At the state level, every governor should carefully review the actions Utah took last week to regulate children’s use of social media and consider the following actions:

Creation of child welfare requirements for government procurement of immersive technologies.

Providing research and development grants to immersive technology companies in the state to focus on impacts on child safety and wellbeing.

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Establishing protocols to review district use of new technologies to determine compliance with federal and state laws.

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Finally, school boards, superintendents, and school leaders at the local level should consider regulations and guidelines for the selection, adoption, and use of immersive technologies:

Evaluation of integration options with current teaching and learning methods and curricula.

Investing in and planning for professional development around these technologies.

Ensuring accessibility for students with disabilities and English language learners when planning the use of new technologies.

Ensure that any planned use of new technology in the classroom is consistent with state and federal special education laws.

Assess the cost of procuring immersive technologies and necessary infrastructure upgrades, and provide community visibility into the results.

Creating opportunities for the participation of educators, parents and students in the technology buying process.

If new technologies can have adverse effects on children – and evidence suggests so – it is prudent to responsibly mitigate the risks associated with those technologies. Why risk? This is the best opportunity for children to benefit from it.