It’s not a glitch in the matrix, it’s the future—or at least, that’s what Facebook will have you think. Like many terms in the blossoming new-age tech lexicon, the metaverse is a concept that seems both from the future and hard to describe. For some, it seems to describe something like a super-immersive video game. For others, it’s a shift in how people will interact. For others still, it might not mean anything at all.
This ambiguity is well-founded, since no singular definition seems to be established. Facebook’s rebranding to Meta has been coupled with the promotion of an alleged Meta-branded “metaverse,” but the specifics of the scope and purpose of the virtual space remain unclear. One thing’s for sure, however: at any capacity, the metaverse is an attempt to bridge the gap between our physical and virtual worlds and interactions, from social to professional relationships and everything in between. This might be a worrying push for many, though, since the potentially problematic relationship between mental health and technology is no secret to anybody. As perhaps the strongest push into a fully virtual reality we’ve ever seen, what kinds of repercussions will the metaverse have for mental health broadly?
Social Media and Mental Health
Although the metaverse is broadly understood to be more than just another social media platform, the parallels are hard to miss. Further, even just anecdotally, we are all familiar with the detrimental effects that social media has had on people close to us, and research backs this up. Although the metaverse aims to mimic “real” relationships and interactions, blurring that line can still fall into the problems we see with social media interactions.
Isolation is one of the big issues of extended social media exposure coupled, almost paradoxically, with unlimited and unfiltered exposure to others’ profiles. On one hand, limited real human interaction is never a good thing. On the other hand, constantly comparing ourselves to others on the internet does a number on our self esteem and emotional wellness. These same concerns are extended to any iteration of the metaverse. If the goal is to bridge the gap between virtual and reality and, thus, extend our time away from real interactions and towards constant online comparison, these mental health concerns are very real and warranted.
Technology and Addiction
Another concern that comes with this move towards the meta is that of technology and addiction. It’s a topic that often comes up in conversations around video games and, seeing as the metaverse certainly looks to incorporate video-game-like elements into the experience, it’s a conversation that needs to be extended to the metaverse as well.
As with all things we enjoy, enjoyment is communicated to and from our brains chemically, like with a dopamine hit. When these dopamine hits are terribly accessible and we get them too often, however, we get hooked. Seeing as the push towards a virtual world can be framed, quite literally, as an escape from reality, the parallels with video game addiction and the risk of addiction with technology can be striking. Developing any unnecessary dependence this way should be worrisome, but becoming dependent on technology that can quickly become isolating can be particularly scary stuff.
The Other Side of Tech
To be sure, though, not all should be doom and gloom. As much as real concerns exist about technology and the metaverse, there are also very important benefits that we could look forward to, even in the scope of mental health. As healthcare embraces technology, we have seen good things for accessibility, surveillance, and consistency. Those who have trouble getting out of their house or traveling, for example, can benefit greatly from virtual healthcare. Depending on the implementation and scope of the metaverse, these benefits can certainly be grown.
Additionally, as we have all experienced in recent years, there are times where real interpersonal interactions simply cannot happen. While those real interactions are ideal, mimicking them through the aid of an immersive metaverse is certainly better than complete isolation.
There are very real concerns that come with a further embrace of even more immersive technology, but all things have to be treated with caution. With care, these concerns can be mediated, and a greater adoption of the metaverse can be a healthy and useful step forward for society as well.
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