The Metaverse’s Promise of Improved Social Experiences May Come With an Unintended Mental Health Downfall With Dr. Ryan C. Warner

The Metaverse’s Promise of Improved Social Experiences May Come With an Unintended Mental Health Downfall With Dr. Ryan C. Warner

VENTEUR spoke with Dr. Ryan C. Warner, licensed clinical psychologist, researcher, speaker, and consultant, about the Metaverse’s potential impact on our mental health. Dr. Warner is also a certified rehabilitation counselor and credentialed National Register health service psychologist. His research interests involve PTSD and substance use, clinical health psychology, and the analysis of social forces affecting people of color. He has conducted talks and training at national and international levels, published in various peer review journals, and served as a graduate-level instructor. 

Dr. Warner received a Bachelor’s in Community Health-Rehabilitation from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, a Master’s in Rehabilitation Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Marquette University. As the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of RC Warner Consulting, LLC, Dr. Warner provides leadership development, diversity training, and wellness enhancement for various organizations and Fortune 500 corporations. He specializes in integrating psychological, multicultural, and evidenced-based principles to enhance team performance and effectiveness. 

Dr. Ryan C. Warner, Licensed Clinical Psychologist

Mental Health and the Metaverse (The Good)

How will the Metaverse empower socially oppressed groups, and how can such empowerment affect those group members’ mental health? 

One benefit that may arise from the Metaverse is less loneliness and isolation. 

Research shows that prolonged social isolation can contribute to significant mental health impacts. Depression is the most common mental illness, affecting over 300 million people worldwide. 

For those that struggle with finding support and interaction, putting on a headset and engaging with others in a 3D world can contribute to less loneliness. 

This may reduce the probability of depression and other symptoms to boost an individual’s overall mood if engaged healthily.

How can the Metaverse empower individuals to be honest and open about who they are, and how can such empowerment affect an entire generation’s mental health?

Due to the Metaverse being a combination of virtual reality and mixed reality worlds, people are allowed to be their authentic selves while engaging with others who hold similar interests. 

Individual users can appear as avatars in any form, which may help them feel empowered. 

This feeling may, in turn, make them feel safe and boost their confidence.  

Can the Metaverse effectively serve as a medium through which socially distanced individuals develop meaningful connections, and if so, how can this benefit those individuals?

As COVID-19 continues to impact the lives of many, social distancing may continue to make it difficult for some to develop meaningful connections. 

However, the Metaverse may mitigate this challenge. 

Within the Metaverse, people can interact with friends and strangers, enjoy virtual experiences like games, learn new things, and many more. Engaging in these activities with others can boost belonging and enhance mood. 

Mental Health and the Metaverse (The Bad)

How will the Metaverse provide the means through which social bullying continues, and can the interactivity of the Metaverse exacerbate the mental anguish experienced by those being bullied?

Similar to the real world, the virtual world may also have some downsides. 

Social bullying may be one concern that can arise. For instance, for those who may feel “protected” and safe behind their avatar, this may, in turn, invite inappropriate comments, bullying, discrimination, trolling, and other unwanted treatments. 

If measures are not implemented to mitigate this probability, there may be significant mental health consequences. Therefore, we need to ensure there are procedures to keep everyone safe from bullying and ensure no tolerance for inappropriate behavior on this platform.

How can the Metaverse’s empowerment of self-expression backfire and result in greater repression? 

When individuals are given access to use the internet or virtual platform to express themselves, we know there are times in which this may backfire. Unlike face-to-face interactions, within the Metaverse, some individuals may begin to say whatever is on their minds because they may feel that the repercussions may be lower in a virtual world. 

This can result in a more significant negative impact and mental health symptoms (e.g., low mood, anxiety, low self-confidence, etc.) to the person on the receiving end.

How can the over-engagement in virtual interactions result in mental health illnesses, and how can we protect ourselves from such outcomes?

Virtual interactions are not necessarily harmful by nature. 

However, over-engagement in virtual interactions is associated with exacerbated mental health symptoms. 

For those who do not limit virtual interaction engagement, research shows these individuals may experience negative emotions such as low self-esteem, depressive symptoms, anxiety, lack of motivation, and other challenges. However, those who limit their virtual interactions, have healthy coping mechanisms, practice self-care, and engage in other behavioral activities (e.g., spend time outdoors, interact with others offline, have additional hobbies, etc.) are more protected from these possible adverse effects. 

Can the realistic nature of the Metaverse and the ability to walk away from experience cause us to underestimate the harmful effects of oversharing, and how can such oversharing negatively impact our mental health? 

For some, the realistic nature of the Metaverse and the ability to walk away from experience may cause individuals to overshare and disclose too much personal information. 

Telling the online world everything about your life can put your well-being, physical safety, financial security, and personal info in a vulnerable position. 

In addition, depending on the outcome of oversharing, some may experience anxiety and intrusive thoughts if they later identify that they possibly shared too much. This is just one example of how oversharing may negatively impact mental health.

Mental Health and the Metaverse (The Ugly)

How can the Metaverse fuel a new form of social addiction, and how can such addiction spiral out of control? 

Research shows that the brain may eventually begin to rely on that experience to release endorphins and feel good with repetition. As a result, the brain may require more activity to feel “normal.” This may fuel social addiction for those who over-engage in the Metaverse. 

Can too frequent engagement in Metaverse interactions lead to real-world relationship decay? How can such a decline negatively impact our mental health?

Suppose individuals spend too much time engaging with the Metaverse. In that case, they may begin to spend less time engaging in face-to-face human interaction. This may contribute to ruptured relationships and possibly increased loneliness. 

What happens to our mental health when our Metaverse relationships abruptly end, and why?

Similar to when any close relationships abruptly end, additional distress may arise. We may experience confusion, frustration, guilt, intrusive thoughts, anxiety, grief, or low mood when losing relationships that are meaningful to us.

Protecting Our Mental Health in the Metaverse

What steps can we take to protect ourselves in the Metaverse, and how will they help?

Although the Metaverse may bring some positive aspects to the lives of many, there may also be some negative consequences. However, following these steps can help to protect ourselves:

  1. Become knowledgeable about the Metaverse, the good, bad, and ugly. This will ensure you are equipped with the right knowledge to be informed on how to protect yourself if needed.
  2. Set limits on Metaverse engagement. We may lose track of time when engaging in an activity we enjoy. However, we must limit our internet consumption so that we can also engage in other activities.
  3. Have other activities that bring pleasure and joy. Spending time with others face-to-face or outdoors can help us disconnect from the virtual world to boost our well-being further.
  4. Report inappropriate content and interactions. We must protect ourselves from possible bullying and know when to disconnect if this occurs. This will help “protect our peace” and improve our coping.
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