The Metaverse's Mental Health Implications Are Still Unclear with Hailey Shafir

The Metaverse's Mental Health Implications Are Still Unclear with Hailey Shafir

MP chatted with Hailey Shafir, a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor and Supervisor (LCMHC & LCMHCS), Licensed Clinical Addiction Specialist (LCAS), and Certified Clinical Supervisor (CCS) working out of Raleigh, NC. She has a Bachelors’s degree from UNC Asheville in Sociology and a Masters’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling (M. Ed) from NC State University.

Hailey Shafir
Hailey Shafir / Photo courtesy of Hailey Shafir

Mental Health and the Metaverse (The Good)

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

The Metaverse may provide a parallel virtual society where people who are disenfranchised or socially isolated can establish a sense of community with other people. 

Many barriers that keep people from establishing a sense of community are erased or lessened in a virtual reality setting. For example, VR makes connecting with others thousands of miles away easier, and algorithms make it easier for users to find and connect with like-minded people.

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?

The degree to which virtual interactions benefit a person’s mental well-being and relationships depends greatly on how authentic they are during online interactions. Some people find it easier to be more authentic online, and others find it more difficult. Some people even choose to misrepresent themselves online to get the attention or approval of other people. 

Even when people are authentic and honestly portray themselves online, there’s no guarantee they’ll have a positive VR experience. Some people who feel misunderstood offline might be able to find acceptance in virtual reality, but they also risk experiencing rejection and criticism. 

Interested in learning more about the Metaverse? MP covers many areas of the Metaverse, including business, ethics, legal, and more.

Often, the ideas, traits, and tendencies praised online are widely embraced by other people, which can create an online society that rewards conformists more than non-conformists. This can create a lot of pressure for people to conform to the groupthink ideology of their VR subculture instead of risking exile when they swim upstream. When something about them does not fit into the mainstream, they might bury or hide it instead of being authentic.

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? 

It’s unclear whether people can develop deep and meaningful connections in virtual reality settings. Some research suggests that interactions on social media are less meaningful and rewarding than in-person interactions, which may also be true for VR interactions. 

It’s likely that the results will vary from person to person and that some people may be better able to form meaningful relationships online than others. This will also probably depend on how authentic users are when they interact with one another on the platform. 

For example, it’s not uncommon for people to curate their social media profiles and avatars in ways that represent an ‘ideal’ version of themselves instead of a realistic version of themselves. This can lead them to falsely represent themselves or selectively represent certain traits they think others will like. Relationships developed on these false impressions are unlikely to develop into close, healthy, and meaningful connections. 

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? If yes, how? 

Cyberbullying is a pervasive problem on social media platforms and will likely continue to be a major issue on VR platforms like the Metaverse. Online bullying and harassment can negatively impact a person’s mental health. Kids, teens, and vulnerable populations may be especially susceptible to these impacts because they may have stronger peer acceptance. 

Experiencing bullying or harassment in a VR setting can quickly change the user's experience from positive to negative. While certain safeguards and platform monitoring can reduce this kind of harassment, it’s impossible to fully police the Metaverse enough to make it a truly safe space. 

When a person is bullied offline, the setting is naturally restricted to a specific time, place, and number of people who are there to witness it. When it happens online, these restrictions go away, creating opportunities for a negative interaction, embarrassing photo, or meme to live on forever in archives or reposts of other users. Sometimes, these snippets can even go viral, spreading to a massively large audience. This is an example of how virtual settings can intensify the negative impacts of criticism, rejection, or bullying.

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

Sharing on social media sometimes follows a binge-purge cycle. The ‘binge’ describes the tendency to overshare online and disclose too many personal details, while the ‘purge’ describes the tendency to restrict and hide personal information from others. The embarrassment or shame a person feels after an oversharing binge often leads to a restrictive purge where they go dark or avoid sharing anything online. Once the embarrassment and shame of the last binge fade far enough in the rearview, the cycle begins again. 

How can the over-engagement in virtual interactions result in mental health illnesses (e.g., delusions, hallucinations, depression, psychoticism), and how can we protect ourselves from such outcomes?

There is a link between excessive time spent online or on social media and mental illness, but it’s unclear if one causes the other. Some people with serious mental illnesses might rely on virtual reality platforms to meet social or emotional needs they cannot fulfill offline.

 Others might find that an existing mental health condition worsens when they spend too much time online or in virtual reality settings. It’s also possible that the effects will vary from person to person or depending on how the VR platforms are used.

As we move into a more digitized version of the future, digital wellness needs to become a mainstream concept that everyone is familiar with. Doctors should talk with patients about it; parents and teachers should educate children about it, and people should personally reflect on ways to achieve digital wellness in their own lives. For example, monitoring and limiting our screen time, supervising the online activity of kids, and discussing online privacy and safety should become a part of everyone’s routine (like exercising, using a password to protect your bank account, or wearing a seatbelt). 

There should also be a lot more accountability on the part of Big Tech corporations that offer virtual reality platforms to the public. For example, having more oversight and regulation about how users’ data is being used is something that should have happened decades ago. 

Also, Big Tech should be required to take a percentage of their profits and devote them to developing resources and support for people who are harmed by their products (i.e., victims of cyberbullying, counseling for people who are addicted to VR, or research into ways to make their products less addictive).

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

It’s yet to be seen exactly how realistic the Metaverse and other virtual realities will be. Still, there are some reasons to believe that some people in society will be much more vulnerable to the pull of VR than others. People with more barriers to real-life social interaction, entertainment, etc., will probably feel more of a pull and will be more impacted by what happens in VR settings. 

One of the main dangers is that instead of becoming something that enhances or works in tandem with offline reality, VR might become a replacement for reality. In other words, it’s possible that virtual reality might become more ‘real’ than real life, at least for certain people. 

Several individuals and societal risks are on the horizon if this occurs, and many of them aren’t fully understood yet. What is clear is that privacy is one of the greatest risks associated with technological advancements like VR. The lack of oversight and regulation of Big Tech companies has created an environment where users’ data is constantly mined, tracked, and used for various private and corporate interests. 

Most people understand privacy is the tradeoff for the convenience and entertainment of their devices and apps. Still, they may not fully understand how much information is being shared about them or what could happen if this data falls into the wrong hands. We’re not far from a version of society that feels like a Black Mirror episode, with smart cities, constant surveillance, a social credit score, and a technocratic ruling class guiding almost all aspects of our lives. Most people don’t realize how much AI algorithms influence their lives and choices. Take this quote from influential author and thought-leader Yuval Noah Harari:

“Because as humans will rely on AI to make more and more decisions for us, the authority will shift from humans to algorithms, and this is already happening. Today, billions of people trust the Facebook algorithm to tell us what is new, the Google algorithm tells us what is true, Netflix tells us what to watch, and the Amazon and Alibaba algorithms tell us what to buy. In the not-so-distant future, similar algorithms might tell us where to work and who to marry and also decide whether to hire us for a job, whether to give us a loan, and whether the central bank should raise the interest rate. And if you ask why you were not given a loan and why the bank didn't raise the interest rate, the answer will always be the same – because the computer says no….”

What is being illustrated here is the fact that technology, AI, and virtual reality are advancing so fast that they’re becoming an existential threat to us. While humans invented them, it’s possible that in the future, humans will lose control of them and, even more frightening- be controlled by them.

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?

Addiction is always about a form of instant gratification that comes at a greater cost later on. It’s easier to create opportunities for instant gratification in a virtual world than it is to do so in the real world. For example, people can buy, watch, or experience something online with just one click, which has created a cultural expectation for things we want to come to us immediately.

Many of the things we do online also activate the pleasure centers in the brain, causing the release of dopamine. This is the same brain chemical responsible for the ‘high’ people feel when they take Cocaine or other addictive drugs. Getting likes on social media, watching porn, and playing video games that reward you with tokens are all behaviors that cause the release of dopamine. Over time, this can lead to ‘addiction pathways’ forming in the brain, making it harder to stop a certain behavior. 

People who struggle with online addictions often face unique challenges in their recovery because, unlike drug addiction, it’s impossible for most people to avoid going online. We have become so dependent on technology and the internet that most people would not be able to take prolonged ‘breaks’ from the internet. This means they must find ways to control and moderate their online activity, which is very challenging once an addiction has formed.

Can too frequent engagement in Metaverse interactions lead to real-world relationship decay, and how can such decay negatively impact our mental health?

We don’t have enough data yet about the specific impacts the Metaverse will have on people’s mental health or relationships. Still, we can make educated guesses based on our current data. My educated guess is that some people will experience negative effects due to spending too much time in virtual reality. 

I expect anxiety, depression, and self-esteem issues to be more common in heavy VR users. 

I also expect to see a rise in loneliness, social isolation, and more people who don’t have meaningful relationships outside of VR. 

I also expect that the heaviest users of VR will become so immersed in their online world that aspects of their real life are neglected. 

Some of the negative impacts I expect to see in this population include:

  • More sedentary lifestyles
  • Neglecting personal hygiene, sleep, or other basic bodily needs
  • Poorer physical health, higher rates of obesity
  • Poor social skills and inability to communicate effectively offline
  • Excessive time and money spent in VR, losing touch with reality
  • Higher rates of mental illness
  • Lower executive functioning and critical thinking skills
  • Lower quality of life and life satisfaction scores
  • More self-esteem issues, higher need for external validation

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

In the virtual realm, it’s not uncommon for relationships to be at a dead end or for people to ‘ghost’ each other, and this can cause a lot of distress. People who have been ghosted often feel confused and anxious and end up ruminating on what went wrong or why the person stopped talking to them. The lack of closure makes it hard for people to move on after an online relationship ends and can also cause trust issues that impact future interactions with other people.

Protecting Our Mental Health in the Metaverse

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

  1. Monitor and track your screentime and online activities, so you know how much time you’re spending in VR, what you’re doing, and ensure this is an intentional (vs. mindless) use of your time
  2. Pay attention to how specific VR experiences or online content affects you, including how it makes you feel while you’re doing it and afterward. Limiting your time or exposure to content that hurts your mood, energy, or self-esteem is a good idea.
  3. Foster your offline life and relationships to ensure that these remain strong, healthy, and intact, which can prevent VR from becoming your whole life
  4. Set up limits and restrictions on your screen time, including time limits for specific apps or activities, and turn on notifications to alert you when you’re getting close to this limit
  5. Adjust your settings to limit notifications that pull you into VR when you want or need to do other things
  6. Safeguard your privacy by adjusting your privacy, tracking, and location sharing settings, and inform yourself about how the platforms use the data you frequently use
  7. Protect yourself from online harassment, bullying, or trolls by adjusting your settings and restricting who can see and access information and data about you online.
  8. Unfriend, unfollow, or block people who harass or troll you and unsubscribe from content you don’t want to pop up in your feed to create a virtual environment that feels positive and safe for you.
  9. Use VR platforms intentionally and in ways that help to enhance your life, build positive relationships, or help you learn, grow, and achieve goals instead of using these platforms mindlessly 
  10. Occasionally unplug from VR by taking ‘breaks’ from these platforms, especially if you notice any negative impacts (i.e., mental health, social isolation, losing control over how much time you spend in VR, neglecting essential tasks because of VR, etc.)

Responses provided by Hailey Shafir, LCMHC and LCMHCS.

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