Virtual reality gaming is seeing a spike in popularity right now — but some experts and industry observers are concerned that frequent use of the technology may come with some health risks, including eyestrain, migraines, and falls. Here is what we know so far about the safety of VR, and the potential health impacts — both negative and positive — that VR gaming may have.
Is VR bad for your eyes?
Some VR health risks seem obvious. While you’re wearing the headset, VR audio and video partially block out the environment around you, making it easier to trip and fall on nearby objects or pets that have wandered by. Other health risks, however, could creep up on users over time. Some eye doctors, for example, are concerned about the potential for VR-induced eyestrain and longterm impacts on the eye-brain connection.
Excessive screen time is known to cause digital eye strain — a condition also called computer vision syndrome (CVS). There’s nothing unique about the LCD screens of a VR headset that would prevent digital eye strain, meaning regular VR use could lead to CVS and related symptoms, such as headache and visual fatigue. Fortunately, taking frequent screen breaks can help to prevent CVS, and digital eye strain can also be reduced with specialised lenses.
Unfortunately, VR screens are different from typical LCD screens in one important way — instead of looking at just one screen, you have a screen for each eye, each positioned just centimeters away from your face. This double-screen setup can contribute to what scientists call the “vergence-accommodation conflict” — visuals that trick the eye into perceiving something close as being far away. The conflict is known to cause viewer fatigue and visual discomfort. In some users, it can also cause persistent headaches and nausea. The conflict may even cause vision problems in the long term.
Those at the biggest risk of VR-related eye conditions are kids, whose eyes and eye-brain connections haven’t fully developed yet. University of California, Berkeley optometry professor Martin Banks tells CNN that spending too much time in VR could put children at risk of developing conditions like myopia or nearsightedness.
Negative effects of VR gaming while sick or injured
Depending on underlying health conditions — like sickness, injury, or a tendency to develop motion sickness — playing VR may also be risky or simply unpleasant.
Mashable Games Editor Tina Amini wrote about her experience spending several days at GDC, a prominent video game developer conference, demoing VR games while recovering from a concussion — an injury that can cause a range of symptoms, including balance issues, abnormal eye movement, and loss of coordination.
Amini’s takeaway from the experience was that gaming in VR can contribute to symptoms brought out by a concussion, like motion sickness. That’s just one person’s anecdote, but such anecdotes are gradually being validated and clarified by studies and medical publications.
According to CNN, most VR devices advise talking to a doctor before using VR if you are “pregnant, elderly, or have pre-existing conditions that may affect your virtual reality experience such as vision abnormalities, psychiatric disorders, heart conditions, or other serious medical conditions.” Some warnings about triggering seizures or blackouts indicate that such events may happen even if the user has no such medical history.
One study demonstrated that VR can elicit a strong emotional response — compared to the same experience displayed on an ordinary computer monitor — that may be difficult to manage for individuals with certain psychiatric conditions. There are also concerns that using VR may slow or compromise recovery for users bouncing back from conditions like sinus infections, headaches, eye problems, stomach issues, or even a cold. Conditions like these require physical equilibrium for a successful recovery, which can be impacted by VR.
In short, while not likely to cause longterm damage in healthy individuals, VR gaming could make recovery from injury or illness more unpleasant.
Could VR actually help improve health?
Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, is more optimistic about the effects of VR. He tells the MIT Press podcast that he believes VR may actually have the potential to make us healthier by blurring the line between the digital world and the real one. With VR, it may be possible to experience virtual scenarios that feel almost as real as the real thing — for example, interacting with virtual foods could possibly contribute to users eating less and feeling fuller.
There is also a growing body of research on VR’s medical applications. Scientists have used VR games and simulations experimentally for a wide variety of purposes, including balance training and mental health programs.
So, is VR safe? Research suggests there may be some minor risks to gaming with VR, but no serious side effects have been reported so far. For now, it’s hard to know what kind of longterm health impacts — positive or negative — that VR may have. Headset owners should game in VR responsibly and take regular breaks.