Mental Health in the Metaverse Will Be Like IRL With Dr. Matt Glowiak
August 31, 2022
MP spoke with Dr. Matt Glowiak, PhD, LCPC, about the pros and cons of the Metaverse, how time spent on Metaverse-related activities can spiral out of control, and how the Metaverse can help or hurt our mental health.
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 is a computer-generated platform in which users may interact with others in a virtual environment.
Here, individuals create avatars that are fantasized and/or ideal versions of themselves. When users participate in a prosocial fashion, much can be gained. For example, those from repressed groups may find this platform empowering.
A significant factor in oppression is having one’s voice minimized or ultimately dismissed. Avatars, then, serve as an opportunity for users to transcend culture.
Here, they interact in a world that is one they envision.
With like-minded others, individuals may make friends, support one another, and even connect on issues they experience and want to see a change in the real world. Though one may argue that Metaverse users are part of their subculture, which is valid in many respects, there is an opportunity for connection that extends well beyond traditional demographics such as ethnicity, race, religion, age, and otherwise.
When used appropriately and in support of one another, the experience is empowering.
Individuals who struggle with a sense of belonging in the real world are now connected. They feel appreciated, valued, and part of something larger. Friendships, despite vast distances, feel as real as any other. And this connection carries forward.
Accordingly, the Metaverse may have positive implications for mental health.
Despite limited research currently, mental health professionals are well aware of the impact of positive relationships on mental health.
Though the Metaverse may not necessarily work to “cure” particular mental health or addictive disorder, it can help.
Time spent here is also healthier than other unhealthy coping skills that people may otherwise use (e.g., drinking, smoking, drug use, antisocial behavior, etc.).
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?
Many feel protected within the Metaverse.
Unlike the real world, where escape from threats may feel limited (e.g., school, work), users may block those perceived as threats, log off, or discontinue use entirely.
There is also the protection of saving face.
Depending on how one sets up an avatar, minimal or no personal information may be revealed. This limits opportunities for negative experiences to cross over one’s personal life.
If someone is picked on at school or work, seemingly everyone comes to know about it. In the Metaverse, these experiences may be protected.
All this leads to a heightened sense of confidence.
If one is safe, they feel more confident.
From here, opportunities to safely and honestly open up are seemingly more readily available.
Speaking one’s truth is empowering.
Though such empowerment does take time to affect an entire generation’s mental health, it is a step in the right direction.
People now can connect unlike ever before.
There are indeed like-minded people throughout the world. Although many struggle to find them in their immediate physical environment, they are often more readily available virtually. This is true beyond the Metaverse but with respect to other World Wide Web-based platforms.
But the key is using it appropriately.
When society can arrive at a point of treating and understanding people as people without the confines of socially constructed barriers, we will all move forward.
At the same time, it is vitally important that we do not lose touch with diversity, as this is something that should be accepted, celebrated, and understood.
What goes into each person and every experience they have is part of what makes them unique.
This will need to be balanced.
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?
The Metaverse can effectively serve as a medium through which socially distanced individuals can develop meaningful connections.
These are truly difficult times.
The looming pandemic, civil unrest, war, climate change, and otherwise have compromised the mental health of individuals globally to an unprecedented extent. A sense of connection is one of the most important factors for well-being. This has been understood for centuries.
When people are encouraged to socially distance themselves for their safety, it is easy to lose this connection.
And even as COVID-19 restrictions have lessened, many are still apprehensive about face-to-face contact, may have acquired mental health or addictive disorders, or even had a previously diagnosed one exacerbated during this time.
Accordingly, opportunities to connect in meaningful ways are essential.
In the Metaverse, making real friends, fostering romantic relationships, building a sense of family, and contributing to positive social change is possible.
Much is possible.
For those reluctant to acknowledge this, it is essential to remember that what is perceived as real to an individual is their subjective reality.
Merely dismissing virtual relationships as “fake” or “unimportant” misses the point. At its core, “friendship” is an emotional connection between or among people. Nowhere does it say that friendship must require an element of physical proximity. As such, meaningful connections here may be as powerful—or even more so—than ones in the physical environment.
This means many of these relationships' pros and cons exist in the Metaverse as they do in the real world.
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?
The protections afforded to those participating in the Metaverse appropriately are also afforded to those who use it inappropriately. Unfortunately, this means that social bullying may continue in the Metaverse.
Social bullies may create fake avatars intended simply to troll other people. Upon being blocked or reported, they may create a new avatar for the action to continue.
Therefore, it is imperative that we educate users, especially those more vulnerable, on ways in which they may protect themselves.
We must also continue monitoring activity while implementing measures to minimize bullying. Those with pure intentions may find themselves, especially angst, when they find that the world they have been trying to escape is compromised.
While some individuals who are socially bullied online do not experience this in the physical environment, others may have come to find bullying an integral part of their lived experience. In either case, social bullying may exacerbate the mental anguish experienced by those being bullied.
It may lead to or exacerbate anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress responses, and suicidal and homicidal ideation. Many perpetrators of bullying have been bullied or abused themselves. Hence, we see the cycle of bullying continue in a vicious cycle.
The Metaverse can help break this cycle, but everyone must use it appropriately.
How can the Metaverse’s empowerment of self-expression backfire and result in greater repression?
Too much of a good thing can be bad, even in the Metaverse.
In some cases, individuals may overly share to their detriment. Especially when others can connect the avatar to the real-life person, issues may arise. This is one pathway toward bullying.
Individuals may say blatantly offensive things to others without discretion, resulting in greater repression.
Now, similar social attacks that occur in the traditional setting happen in the Metaverse. For some, the ideal version of themselves they developed and used to express themselves in the Metaverse may be so out of touch with reality that they lose touch with who they are.
This can be scary.
We act differently when we forget who we are, which may have further personal and social consequences.
When someone tries hard to be someone they are not, they internalize a negative impression of themselves, impacting their overall self-concept. Here, one is especially susceptible to mental health complications.
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?
The Metaverse should be used with discretion.
Too much time in virtual interactions can result in mental illnesses, including delusions, hallucinations, depression, psychoticism, and otherwise. It may also compromise physical health when one leads a sedentary lifestyle and fails to consume a nutritional balance.
Some individuals are more prone to said complications than others.
Individual body chemistry and/or pre-existing conditions may cause some to experience symptoms quicker than others.
The Metaverse is a highly immersive environment in which one is engaged in substantial stimuli. Here, the brain functions at high capacity. Most everything is seemingly within reach, which is appealing. Many times, this is immediately accessible. This combination stimulates the pleasure/reward pathway, which positively reinforces engagement. Users are urged to engage in the Metaverse in the traditional environment and find themselves spending more time in it.
This cycle of urges and withdrawal is like any other addictive disorder. And, of course, this is not without consequence.
The best way to protect oneself is by setting boundaries.
Set time limits and stick with them.
Take breaks when needed.
Completely disconnect when negative experiences arise.
The good news is that we do have this power.
The bad news is that many oftentimes feel powerless against it.
When one feels powerless, this is an indication that there is a serious problem warranting attention. Speaking to a trusting other and seeking professional support is highly recommended.
Can the realistic nature of the Metaverse combined with 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?
The realistic nature of the Metaverse, and the ability to walk away from the experience, can cause people to underestimate the harmful effects of oversharing.
Whether one realizes it or not, we rely a lot on body language, vocal tone, and other nonverbals. If all someone sees is a computer-generated avatar with written text or a voice that is not that of the other, it is easy to minimize another’s experience.
The same is true for us. We may say something harmful to someone else without recognizing the damage done. We merely say something egregious and walk away, leaving the other to suffer.
On the other hand, it is also possible that despite walking away from the experience, another can directly connect the person to the other, which may lead to social consequences outside the Metaverse. Either experience negatively impacts 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?
The reward/pleasure pathway is an innate mechanism intended to protect us. It ensures we eat enough food, drink enough water, sleep, reproduce, form meaningful relationships, and otherwise. The more accessible and stimulating the stimulus, the greater likelihood it may lead to addiction.
The Metaverse is highly accessible and stimulating for many users, creating the perfect storm. Though no single personality factor indicates one is more prone to addiction, there are risk factors for consideration.
Those with a genetic predisposition, have been bullied, experienced trauma, struggle to connect interpersonally, and/or engage in high-risk behaviors (among other factors) are at higher risk. The risk is even higher for those with preexisting addiction disorders, though addiction is not imminent.
The more one feels personally affirmed in the Metaverse while gradually increasing time spent there, the greater the risk. Over time, one may feel lost outside of the Metaverse. As more time is spent here, less time is spent participating in previously enjoyed activities and on life obligations.
One may feel obligated to engage despite the consequences or attempts to stop.
One may begin justifying time spent in the Metaverse while socially withdrawing from others in the physical environment.
Much becomes compromised.
Once addiction spirals out of control, it is not as simple as just disconnecting. Instead, one will need to work toward emotional healing and reconnecting to that which was previously necessary.
This requires an intentional and consistent effort.
Though one may not overdose from time spent in the Metaverse as they might from substances of abuse, the symptoms and consequences (both direct and indirect) may prove debilitating. And for those struggling with substance use disorders, substances are likely used in increased amounts while engaging in the Metaverse—providing the “ultimate pleasurable experience.”
Can too frequent engagement in Metaverse interactions lead to real-world relationship decay, and how can such decay negatively impact our mental health?
Relationship decay might occur when one spends more time in the Metaverse than connecting with and maintaining real-world relationships.
This makes sense considering that, like most everything else, we must work toward the good things in life. Meaningful relationships are among the most important of the “good things” to many.
Real-world friends may no longer feel valued, distance themselves, and ultimately give up. Individuals stuck in the Metaverse may fail to pay attention to what is happening around them—ultimately finding that the only relationships they have left are those in the Metaverse.
This is a lonely experience, which can prove challenging to bounce back from without a concerted effort.
Here, one may no longer feel connected to the real world and become even further lost in the Metaverse. Doing so is yet another contributor to spiraling into addiction.
What happens to our mental health when our Metaverse relationships abruptly end, and why?
For many, abrupt endings to Metaverse relationships are seemingly no big deal.
The thought may be that they were never real anyway, just something fun to pass time. For others, the loss may prove as significant as losing a real-world relationship. Emotions felt here may be as powerful as those toward a family member, romantic partner, or best friend. Therefore, one may experience a significant negative impact on mental health.
One may experience loneliness, damaged self-esteem, compromised self-worth, ruminating negative thoughts, and suicidal and/or homicidal ideation.
To this point, we have already witnessed numerous mental health implications, suicides, and homicides stemming from negativity on social media.
The Metaverse is by no means above this.
So, depending on the value one places on Metaverse relationships, the implications may be as profound as any other.
Protecting Our Mental Health in the Metaverse
What steps can we take to protect ourselves in the Metaverse, and how will they help?
Fortunately, there are steps to protect our mental health in the Metaverse.
Though by no means all-inclusive, the following may help you maximize positive experiences while minimizing negative ones:
Before entering the Metaverse, educate yourself on what it is, how it works, its intended purpose, and the means of protecting yourself. You are off to a great start if you are reading this.
Set aside specific time for engagement that does not interfere with other essential life obligations (e.g., school, work, family, friends) and activities enjoyed. Do not exceed the time limits you set. Gradually doing so may place one at risk.
Create an avatar where it is difficult for others to draw a connection to who you indeed are. It can be dangerous for others to know your physical address, name, age, and otherwise. Parents and guardians may help with avatar development while enacting parental controls for minors.
While engaging in the Metaverse, do not participate in activities you would not in the real world. If you are not a bully, do not bully others. Being grandiose here is a mismatch if you are an easy-going, down-to-earth person. Be you. Though acting more according to your ideal self is okay, have limits here. Again, the most meaningful experiences are real ones, and you can have authentic experiences with real connections in the Metaverse.
If you are bullied in the Metaverse, report and block that user.
Should you find yourself disconnecting from the real world or spiraling into addiction, speak to someone. The sooner, the better. Addiction is a vicious disease that catches up to many before they even realize it is happening. Therefore, do not wait to act if anything seems out of the ordinary. Every moment counts.
Be a positive example. Stand up for others and yourself. Speak to what is right. This is empowering. Though some people have cruel intentions in the Metaverse, many do not. Focusing on and interacting with these individuals is what maximizes the experience.
Remember to live a well-balanced life that is rich in self-care. A self-care plan that is intentional and consistent may help minimize or completely prevent one from becoming disconnected from a healthy, enriching lifestyle. The Metaverse can be a healthy part of self-care, but it is not the only thing. When it becomes the only thing, it is time to check out.
Responses provided by Dr. Matt Glowiak, PhD, LCPC.
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