The year 2022 is considered by many to be the year of the metaverse. While the big players on the web see the metaverse as an opportunity, experts are beginning to wonder about the psychological effects of “living” in a virtual reality.
Because the risk is that in a world that is too good to be true (and that in fact is not true) you end up feeling better than in the real world.
From the social network to the metaverse
Since Facebook announced its rebranding to Meta, the metaverse has emerged from its niche and become a mass topic. The thing is, if a giant like Facebook with 2 billion users creates a metaverse, potentially a third of the world’s inhabitants can be part of it. This time we must not be found unprepared as when Facebook came to change everyone’s lives, almost 20 years ago.
Facebook burst into society with its social network that, if it suddenly increased the possibilities of connection and cancelled the distances, on the other hand, it also increased the cases of depression. Because the constant confrontation with other people, even if mediated by a screen, can harm the human psyche.
It’s a bit like what’s happening with Instagram, where especially younger people are bombarded by influencers, men and women who, with the support of filters, are able to show the perfect physique and become models to imitate. The problem is that this comparison leads young people to extreme challenges with themselves and to live their bodies with discomfort.
All this is likely to be exacerbated by the metaverse, where everyone will have an avatar and can potentially create it with the features they prefer. But in a virtual world where the user is seen, beautiful, tall, blond and with a gymnastic physique, can you stay without losing touch with reality? Isn’t it a bit like living a hallucination? That’s the question to be asked.
Social problems exacerbated by the metaverse
Mark Zuckerberg, stung to the core by former Facebook employee Francis Haugen, has publicly stated that in Facebook (now Meta) they take seriously the problems that can develop especially in younger people in a distorted use of social media. So much so that in response to the accusations he recalled the efforts made by Facebook even in terms of resources to combat the mental distress that even the social network can cause.
Notes Swansea University professor Phil Reed:
“At best, such an environment may serve as a temporary ‘safe haven’ for those with schizophrenic-like symptoms. Whether that makes the metaverse a safe space for other people remains to be seen. At worst, it may be that immersion in this digital world would increase the likelihood of being divorced from reality and thus generate delusional or psychotic symptoms. Once again, we are seeing a situation in which a digital technology company is proposing a product that has great destructive potential for public health without being subject to proper scientific risk-testing. Whether the investment by Facebook in 10,000 jobs in countries agreeing to the development of this technology has anything to do with that is unclear”.
Escape as relief and disconnection from reality
Social networks, as will the Metaverse, have enhanced social relationships. The point is that they give the illusion that they have erased distances, but the reality is that the user is always alone in his or her own space, even if it feels like he or she is close to someone else. The metaverse will magnify this effect of being in company, when in fact the human being is alone.
Of course, the experience in virtual reality can be a pleasant escape from a reality that can be difficult, and give a momentary feeling of pleasure.
To avoid becoming “metaverse” junkies, everyone should learn to curb their dependence on digital devices. It would be enough to realize when the use of the immersive device becomes too prolonged. And if it’s impossible to do without, then it’s time to turn to experts.
Expert opinion on the psychological effects of the metaverse
The Wall Street Journal collected the opinion of some experts on all these issues. Their opinions raised new questions. For example, Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, said:
“There’s less ability to create an accurate version of oneself in the metaverse than there is on the social media platforms, and where the skew is towards better-looking, idealized avatars. The challenge is going to be when people are spending a lot of time there, and they’re in a world in which everyone is just perfect and beautiful and ideal. How does that downstream affect one’s own self-esteem? No one knows the answer to that”.
The point of these words is that the metaverse can pose self-esteem issues when people leave the perfect world and return to real life.
For Peter Etchells, professor of psychology and communication sciences at Bath Spa University, it makes sense for Facebook and others to develop the metaverse in an ethical way and not just get carried away with what may lead users to stay connected all the time. That said, he concludes:
“But we shouldn’t just focus on the negatives, otherwise we will miss a tremendous opportunity”.
Similar thinking comes from Candice Odgers, a professor of psychological sciences at the University of California, who calls for special caution with regard to younger children.
Matter of balance
It’s ultimately all about balance. We have to learn to stay in the metaverse, to distinguish it from real life, to understand that it doesn’t replace healthy behaviors such as exercising and getting enough sleep, for example. Just as it cannot replace sociality, even though the metaverse is highly social.
When the metaverse becomes a reality, we should literally learn to be in it. If that happens, then the metaverse will be an opportunity and not just a risk.