Virtual reality - or VR - is a technology you might have heard of and it is growing in popularity.  

To experience virtual reality, you wear a headset which recreates a virtual environment in which you can look around 360 degrees, hear sounds and move your hands and feet to interact with the world around you.

Virtual reality has lots of uses. BT Sport broadcast the UEFA Champions League final in VR.  Openreach is using it so trainee engineers can experience things like climbing a telephone pole. VR is increasingly used for gaming, so you can explore the bottom of the ocean, ride a rollercoaster and more.

[Read more: Virtual reality – how real is it? The Great British public dive into a VR ocean]

Read on to find out more about how VR works and how suitable it is for children. For more information, Internet Matters, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to keeping children safe online, has published a guide written by games expert Andy Robertson packed with helpful advice.

Virtual reality: The kit

Smartphone-based VR

If you are curious about VR and want to try it, but don’t want to spend much money, Google Cardboard is a good place to start. Headsets cost around £4-£10 from Amazon, you slot your smartphone in the front (it works with Android and Apple phones) and there are loads of free VR apps in the Google Play Store, including a Halloween ride, beach and even Star Wars.

For a better VR experience, the Samsung Gear Gen 2 (£48.58) is a proper headset, so slightly more expensive, and works with some Samsung phones. Google’s Daydream (£69) is similar, but works with phones from a range of manufacturers.

Console-based VR

This type of virtual reality requires a console to work, which means it’s more expensive, but the graphics and sound are better, creating a more immersive experience.

Sony’s PlayStation VR (£320) works with the Sony PlayStation 4, while the HTC Vive (£759) and Oculus Rift (£499) require a powerful gaming PC.

Is virtual reality safe for children?

Virtual reality is a new technology, so there haven’t been many studies into its long-term effects on children.

It’s an immersive technology that engages your body, eyes and ears and because children are still growing and developing, you’re advised to limit their time using VR. According to the Oculus manual, ‘Prolonged use should be avoided, as this could negatively impact hand-eye coordination, balance, and multi-tasking ability.’

VR  - along with playing video games and watching TV - brings a small risk (1 in 4000) of seizures, triggered by lights. Some people have reported feeling motion sickness after using virtual reality.

Graphic of head with VR graphicsDifferent manufacturers have different age recommendations, but general advice is that children should be monitored and take regular breaks:

  • Google Cardboard: Google doesn’t specify an age, its website says: ‘Cardboard is not for use by children without adult supervision.’
  • Samsung Gear VR: The Gear VR should not be used by children under the age of 13.
  • Google Daydream View: Daydream View should not be used by children under the age of 13.
  • Sony PlayStation VR: The VR headset is not for use by children under the age of 12.
  • HTC Vive:  HTC doesn’t specify an age, but advises young children not to use the product.
  • Oculus Rift: The product should not be used by children under the age of 14.

Virtual reality is a brilliant technology, you genuinely feel like you are in another world, and it can be a great experience for children and help them learn, but you need to exercise caution using it.

Writing on Internet Matters, games expert Andy Roberson advises parents to take the same approach to VR games as normal video games: “Trying the games out before younger players experience them is advisable. 

“As with any video-game, you should take breaks of 5-10 minutes after every 45 minutes of playing. Starting with shorter periods of play is also advisable to let players acclimatise to this very different way of playing games.”

For a comprehensive and easy-to-use resource of the most up-to-date information for keeping your child safe online, check out Internet Matters.