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Don’t Wear Your Headset at the Dinner Table!

In her recent talk at the Orama Festival in London, immersive media specialist and producer Catherine Allen posited that virtual reality could cause a “moral panic” as the technology develops and becomes more ubiquitous.

Drawing a line throughout the history of communication technology, she pointed out that something as seemingly quaint as the telegram caused panic and excitement when it was released. That trend has continued up to the present day.

Parents’ iPhone addictions are hurting kids’ cognitive abilities, fueling talk of the dangers of screen addiction. From the 1980s on, TV’s growth as part of our everyday lives created concerns around over-indexing on screen time as well. With VR and other technologies moving into the mainstream today, we can expect to see similar waves of hysteria begin.

Worries that people will sit around the dinner table wearing headsets are likely overblown. As VR and AR advance, devices to consume that content will become less isolating, and people will adapt activities around them. Even when VR and AR become ubiquitous, people will still talk to each other in the real world.

Counter to those dinner table fears, there are some legitimate concerns about VR that need to be addressed, however. Allen points out in her speech that half of children who use VR later claim the experience was real, and that there is potential to implant false memories in them. But false memory syndrome or the “Mandela Effect” already exists without tech’s help.

Recent years have revealed multiple instances of widespread false memories, including last year’s belief that Sinbad had starred in a genie movie called “Shazam,” and the long-time Berenstein/Berenstain Bears dissonance. The Mandela Effect itself comes from a belief among members of the population that Nelson Mandela died in prison (rather than as a free man in 2013).

Still, the potential for VR to create confusion on a mass scale and convince people that something is real has problematic potential, especially in an era of fake news.

And then there’s sex, the cornerstone of any great moral panic.

VR porn is growing fast, with billion-dollar potential. The technology allows lines to be blurred like never before. On one hand, the usual rules about consenting adults apply as they do in the real world. But the implications for non-consensual experiences is rife with potential pitfalls as well..

Revenge porn in VR, for instance, where a user can have a virtual encounter with someone who never consented to being part of the experience in the first place, is terrifyingly real possibility. In order to curb this, VR platforms need to adopt strict distribution rules to make sure these types of situations don’t arise.

Despite the growing pains, moral panic about VR actually means the technology is becoming more meaningful — no one gets worked up about something that people see as an inconsequential fad.

And moral panics always tend to pass. For all the worries around screen overexposure, we’ll still watch big events on TV, and utilize our mobile devices for everything from dating to grocery shopping to transportation.

If VR can make it through the initial panic, it can come out even stronger.