Protecting children: What is the right age?
The use ofVR by children has created further concern (see also Paura 2018). According tojaron Lanier (2018,118),“there’s a consensus in theVR research community that kids shouldn’t get into VR before about age six, and some researchers recommend waiting until eight or nine”.The health and safety guide for the Oculus Rift and Touch headsets (Oculus 2019) forbids the use of the device by children under 13 years old. The guide explains that the headset is not the proper size for children, and that younger children are in a critical period in their visual development. Children’s susceptibility toward acquiring false memories is another point of concern (Bailenson 2018,992).
In TV news, for example, warnings by the news anchors of upcoming disturbing material have often preceded the insert but without any age recommendations. So far, The Guardian has been one of the few news media organizations that has provided special instructions and age recommendations for immersive journalism users. It has also informed its immersive journalism audience that if they feel sick or uncomfortable, the head-mounted displays should be taken off. Furthermore, they have been advised to sit down and avoid placing any hot drinks nearby (Panetta 2016). At the beginning of an immersive experience, such as in 6x9: Solitary confinement, a prison story, there is a warning:
Before you watch further you should be aware that this virtual experience has disturbing material and could provoke an emotional reaction.You should take this and your comfort level into consideration before you choose to continue. You must be at least 18 years old to participate in this virtual experience.
6X9: Solitary confinement -VR experience 2016
Another ethical issue, emphasized first by Ana Luisa Sanchez Laws (2019), is the use of children as informants in distressing news environments. Among the very first examples of immersive journalism were mini-documentaries, such as The Displaced (2015) and Clouds Oner Sidra (2015), in which refugee children were the central characters of the stories (see also Yemen’s Skies ofTerror 2018). According to Sanchez Laws (ibid., l),“the sensitivity required when presenting distressful events is even more important when working with minors as the subjects of these events”. Of course, permission from the parents or other custodians should always be asked if underage persons are to be used as story subjects.This is in line with general journalism ethics.
It is easy to argue that immersive journalism is indeed a powerful new medium, which could have both positive and negative effects for its users. As feelings and emotions have entered research in journalism studies, immersive journalism represents a new and important study field that needs international collaboration and networks. Finally, we can perhaps even start talking about emotive immersive journalism, as emotions play an essential role in the closed virtual experiences and story narratives.
Even if research on the effects of immersive journalism is still scarce, and the user base is low, we can already argue, based on results from health sciences, that there is a need for health instructions and ethical fine-tuning in terms of immersive experiences.
Perhaps most important of all, there should be minimum ages set for immersive journalism. What the lowest age should be for immersive journalism experiences is still debatable. Motion picture and game content rating systems could also offer some guidance for immersive experiences. If there are any doubts that the content may cause psychological harm for its users, special warnings and age restrictions should be set. Of course, another question is how to control that these warnings are obeyed.
Immersive journalists should not only be aware of their own work ethics in the matter of emotive immersive storytelling but also be critically cautious toward possibly advanced and sophisticated manipulation and disinformation operations in the immersive journalism form. In ethics, special attention should be paid to the questions of suitable content and its authenticity.
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