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Kids in Space

By David Haldane

August 10, 2023


The phone call startled me.

“David,” my wife said from the medical lab 142 miles away where she works the night shift, “Grandpa’s worried about Isaac.”

She was referring, of course, to our 12-year-old son who, at that moment, was amusing himself in the living room where Grandpa sat browsing on his cell phone while I watched TV in the bedroom.

“He says Isaac’s doing his virtual reality thing,” my wife went on, “and looks like he’s gone insane. Why don’t you go out and check?”

My first reaction was that if Grandpa had concerns regarding my son, he should be knocking on my door 20 feet away rather than bothering my wife at work where it had taken her two-and-a-half hours to drive. My second reaction was that I better go check on my son.

What I found was not unlike what I’d seen before: Isaac gesticulating wildly into thin air, engaging in what appeared to be an imaginary conversation with someone only he could see. I should probably also mention that he was wearing a thick plastic wraparound mask completely covering his eyes and nose.

“Hey, son, how you doing in there?” I asked without receiving even a glimmer of response or recognition. “I hope everything’s ok; your grandpa’s kind of worried.”

Welcome to the place where many of today’s children play.

I should probably say, in my defense, that I’m not the one who initially opened its door to this particular child. No, that was my dear brother who, in a fit of generosity, swooped in one day to take his favorite nephew on a shopping spree. They returned with the brand-new Oculus Quest 2 VR mask and controllers for which Isaac had been begging for months. And, well, let’s just say that our lives have never since been the same.

For those unschooled in the vagaries of today’s virtual reality universe, here’s an elemental primer. It’s not unlike, say, the gamers’ cyberspace most of us have glimpsed online populated by dragons, demons, devils, and diehards. What is different, however, is that these monsters exist in real four-dimensional time projected in visual and audible stereo.

“Everything’s good,” Isaac assured me after I’d finally pried him away from his new mask, “except that you just got me killed!”

Believe me, I’ve struggled with this. Is virtual reality, as his grandfather believes (informed, apparently, by a friend on Facebook) the road to dissonance, disaster, dysfunction, and despair? Or, as my pre-teen son insists, simply about frolicking, fanfare, flamboyance, and fun?

Believe it or not, that was the major topic of a recent conversation between me and another American on a jet shuttling us back home to the Philippines. “Boy,” he said, “I’m glad I don’t have kids that age. On the one hand, you need to protect them, but on the other you can’t hide them from the world forever.”

Even, I suppose, if that world exists in the cloud.

I was kind of stuck on the fence about it until Isaac said something that caught my attention. “Dad,” he exclaimed, more excited than I’d seen him in years, “I’ve made a new friend!” Turns out the kid, who he met somewhere in virtual Lala land, actually lives in Wyoming. And now the two meet regularly in cyberspace to share their lives and adventures.

Would watching zombies on television, I asked myself, constitute a better use of his time? At least virtual reality is interactive. Not that different, I concluded, from playing cops-and-robbers with friends.

And so, I’ve made peace with my son’s virtual reality fixation within, of course, certain limits. Ah, but now a new threat lurks on the horizon sparking unprecedented and unexplored fears.

Isaac claims not to have discovered girls yet, a major source of comfort for me and his mom. Our worst nightmare: that, when he finally does, his first girlfriend will be an AI Chatbot.

In which case, neither God nor Grandpa will be of much help.





 David Haldane’s latest book, A Tooth in My Popsicle, is available on Amazon and Lazada. An award-winning author, journalist, and radio broadcaster, Haldane is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Gold Star Daily.


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