New Report: Youth and Extended Reality from the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on March 18, 2022


Extended reality (XR) technologies are becoming increasingly pervasive in the lives of young people today, entering homes, classrooms, and museums. These immersive technologies hold great promise for learning, creativity, and self-expression, while coming with risks connected to accessibility, privacy, and safety.
from the Berkman Klein Center report, “Youth and Extended Reality: An Initial Exploration of Augmented, Virtual and Mixed Realities”


In a new report on Youth and Extended Reality released by the Berkman Klein Center, TAP scholar Urs Gasser and colleagues Sandra Cortesi, Alexa Hasse, Melyssa Eigen, Pedro Maddens Toscano, and Maya Malik explore the potential benefits and risks of youth engagement (ages 12-18) with extended reality (XR) technologies. The report aims to stimulate further research and dialogue among a spectrum of stakeholders, including policymakers, educators, parents, caregivers, international organizations—and youth themselves.


XR is a multimodal technology that includes augmented reality (AR) which lets you overlay virtual effects on the real-world environment, mixed reality (MR) which lets you use real-world objects within a virtual environment, and virtual reality (VR) which immerses you in an entirely virtual environment.


The authors spotlight concrete examples of youth oriented XR technologies in three focus areas—learning environments, health, and promotion of diversity equity and inclusion—and identify questions within each area that need further discussion. To promote youth engagement in the XR dialogue, the paper also identifies apps that enable young people to design their own XR experience in alignment with their interests and needs. Finally, the paper examines the overall challenges that XR technologies pose for youth, including concerns about data privacy, accessibility, safety, inclusion of under-represented groups, commercial profiling, and cyberbulling.


The following excerpts from “Youth and Extended Reality: An Initial Exploration of Augmented, Virtual and Mixed Realities” highlight some of the authors’ learnings about youth and XR experiences.


XR and Formal/Informal Learning Environments


A meta-analysis involving 26 studies of AR in the education domain, for instance, suggests that such experiences can enhance learning outcomes, such as increased content understanding, improved long-term memory retention, and increased motivation to learn.


Preliminary evidence indicates three key areas with respect to potential ways XR technologies may be integrated in the classroom.

  • First, XR technologies can be used to foster skill-based learning, such as learning a language.
  • Second, XR can expand the possible activities youth can learn from in a hands-on manner. Such technologies can, for example, allow young people to travel inside the human body and explore cells for a biology course.
  • And third, XR can allow for new functionalities, or affordances, that offer opportunities for young people to learn in ways that have not yet been possible with other technological tools. For instance, XR can simulate architectural designs that are more realistic that computer-aided designs—allowing individuals to walk through a space and explore various objects in it.

XR and Youth Health


XR technologies may help open up the potential for the diagnosis and treatment of physical and mental health conditions among youth and provide more accessible entry points to the healthcare system.


Both AR technologies and VR technologies have been integrated into fitness apps to make physical activity a multimodal experience with real and virtual elements. In the context of youth, these technologies have turned fitness into games that can be used both in school gym classes or at home.


Among youth specifically, mental health conditions affect one in six young people ages 10 to 19 globally. Moreover, half of all mental health disorders begin by the age of 14, but the majority of cases go undiagnosed and untreated. In the youth context, virtual reality, for instance, has been used to detect drug use among teens and treat substance use disorders that are particularly prevalent among young people.


Promoting Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion


The uneven access and the lack of skills and opportunities to use XR technologies—especially for youth from underrepresented communities—runs the risk of amplifying digital inequalities. How can different stakeholders—such as policymakers, companies, international organizations, and educators—reach these communities to promote access to these technologies and cultivate the skills needed to use them?


A number of multimodal XR experiences highlighted here suggest that XR may help young people learn more about different communities, celebrate their identity, and cultivate empathy in a specific scenario. The experience may be as simple as a Snapchat filter or as involved as a fully immersive experience (e.g., a VR-based solitary confinement simulation).


Challenges and Concerns


There are numerous challenges around privacy, data and data protection, and commercial risk. For example—like many digitally connected systems—XR has the ability to collect, aggregate, analyze and monetize users’ data—data which is “durable, searchable, and virtually undeletable.”


A young person’s future—from the university they are admitted to, to their employment opportunities and quality of working life—could be (positively or negatively) impacted by the nonverbal data that XR technologies collect.


Additionally, XR offers another online space for young people to be cyberbullied in. Research shows that harassment in XR, such as VR, may take different forms, such as environmental (e.g., throwing virtual objects) or physical (e.g., unwanted physical contact). Given the immersive nature of XR, will these types of harassment be experienced as more intense compared to bullying via text message or chat? And how can educators, parents, and other stakeholders most effectively reduce and prevent these forms of online harassment?


As with many other networked technologies, such as artificial intelligence, there are concerns around the extent to which the design of XR incorporates the voices and perspectives of underrepresented groups.


The uneven access and the lack of skills and opportunities to use XR technologies—especially for youth from underrepresented communities—runs the risk of amplifying digital inequalities.


Read the full article on Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard: “Youth and Extended Reality: An Initial Exploration of Augmented, Virtual and Mixed Realities,” by Sandra Cortesi, Alexa Hasse, Melyssa Eigen, Pedor Maddens Toscano, Maya Malik, and Urs Gasser (October 2021).