As we settle into 2022, we are witnessing exciting trends and innovations in digital technology. Metaverse is one of the exciting innovations in this realm.
What is metaverse?
Broadly speaking, metaverse encompasses a combination of multiple elements of technology, such as virtual reality and augmented reality.
The next iteration of the internet could be a vast, three-dimensional digital frontier that looks a lot like real life. Tech giants such as Facebook and Microsoft have presented their version of what the metaverse would look like.
Benefits come with drawbacks
Metaverse is very much like social media and interactive gaming in how it can affect our mental health and social health. Gaming, social media and the metaverse are us as individuals, but in a different state. We control them, and use them to communicate, but they are not ‘real life’ and so enable us to put across ourselves in ways that wouldnt be possible in the ‘real world’.
Robert Weatherhead, a digital expert with over 20 years experience, explains: ‘Metaverse has its benefits but also its drawbacks. As with social media people can become obsessed with the perception of them in an alternative world, and lose sight of other areas of their lives. Living a life detached from our own is never a healthy thing for relationships or our own focus.
‘Bullying can become rife in the meta verse; we have seen this with online gaming such as Roblox where children (and some adults) say things and communicate in a way they wouldnt in real life. The nature of communication (in chat or via an avatar) makes people treat it differently than in person.
‘Unfortunately, things like sexual assault can likely to take place too. We saw this way back with Second Life, and we have seen it with other online worlds. Again, people acting in a way that they wouldnt in real life because it feels detached.’
All of this means that the importance of mental health cannot be understated. Appreciating they are less ‘real’ is key. Appreciating that you can disconnected at any moment is also key, always on is bad for mental health. And protection of minors to this world is also important. The metaverse feels like a game because of the avatars and animation, but if we open up children to it too young we will face all of the issues that have been inherent in the internet since forums and chatrooms, magnified.
How will affect mental health?
While there’s plenty of excitement around the metaverse, we should be cautious too; it can potentially lead to reduced physical activity and isolation. Tech and mental health experts have varied insights on how metaverse can affect mental health and well-being.
Mark Basa, the global brand and business manager at crypto company HOKK Finance, says: ‘Being constantly immersed in a virtual world that is completely out of touch with physical reality will probably result in people being continuously overstimulated and mentally exhausted. However, due to their eyes being bombarded with strong, engaging, and addictive visuals day in, day out, their brains are going to be so overworked that they will not have time to recover when they are out of the metaverse.
‘Similar to how drug or gambling addicts are constantly seeking that euphoric moment of “winning” or the feelings of pleasure to substitute their past, deep-seated traumas, I believe that the metaverse could provide anyone a quick fix and give them the answers they are seeking through new and highly engaging worlds where they can feel like they matter.
‘Personally, I feel that companies will enforce policies stipulating that employees will need VR equipment to work in the Metaverse. This will put pressure on the mental health of those already addicted to the social aspects the metaverse will bring.
‘If controlled and used in moderation, the Metaverse could be a fun new way to experience the internet. Otherwise, I think it will be the end of civilization as we know it. We’re not designed to be stimulated on that level. The deterioration of our mental health begins when we cannot differentiate what is real and what is not.’
What about metaverse and digital addiction?
Linda Kaye, PhD, a leading expert in cyberspychology from Edge Hill University, explains: ‘Whilse we do not yet have an evidence-base about the impacts of the metaverse, the most relevant evidence we do have relates to use of VR [virtual reality].
‘This has largely been used in gaming as enjoyable leisure, as well as in supervised interventions such as in treating phobias or improving aspects of social-cognition. These in themselves are very different purposes of immersive VR and it isn’t immediately clear whether the metaverse for the range of activities on offer may result in different types of use or overuse, or pose issues for so-called “addiction”.
‘Historically, immersive VR is usually task-focused (as may be the case in gaming) or leading to an end-goal, whether that be in-world or in one’s “offline” world. It is unclear how VR when used for everyday tasks will result in different patterns of behaviours around its use. This may conceivably result in people either not using it at all – if they see no tangible purpose – and thus may be at risk of social exclusion, or conversely, may use it too much if there is not an obvious “end point”.
‘Neither of these are especially favourable, and may be associated with risks to aspects of well-being. Rather than looking at use of metaverse from an “addiction” perspective, we would be best placed to understand the social, economical and political drivers behind its use and note that engaging in experiences in the metaverse are unlikely to be individually-driven in most cases and as such, an “addiction” perspective is largely unhelpful. ‘
Internet addiction disorder
Psychologist Cristina Gregory, PhD says: ‘Internet addiction is only a subset of technology addiction in general. As the name states, its concentration is on compulsion with the Internet – as other areas of media addiction can be seen in television addiction, radio addiction, and other types of media addiction.’
Some of the symptoms of addiction disorder can include:
- No longer engaging in activities that were once enjoyed
- Spending most waking hours online
- Anger or agitation if you are asked to step away from your device of choice
- Lying about your internet use
- Concealing your internet use
Social media is meant to foster connection – and in multitude of ways it has – but it can also be argued that it has driven us to be more alone and disconnected than ever. With all its shiny interface and stunning features, interactions via social networks are not as authentic or satisfying as real-world relationships.
Social media users often believe they are connecting with friends or family via social networks, but in reality, they are at home and alone. Similarly, social video game experiences also leave the player isolated without real human engagement.
Now it is up to us how to take advantage of the next development in digital technology.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the managing director of Psychreg.