Will the metaverse mess with teens’ mental health? While it may take a while before we can definitively answer that question, some experts fear the answer will be a resounding yes.
Much has already been written regarding the correlations social scientists have seen between social media screen time and adverse mental health effects among young users. Anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation have skyrocketed among adolescents in the last decade. And researchers believe that’s due to a toxic stew of screen-time related influences, including FOMO (fear of missing out), cyberbullying, unhealthy comparisons to unrealistic images and, ironically, increasing social isolation.
So what happens as companies such as Meta invite users into evermore immersive virtual reality environments and experiences? When users can, essentially, inhabit a digital world in addition to the real one?
Albert “Skip” Rizzo, a psychologist and director of medical virtual reality at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies told CNBC, “There’s a potency about being immersed in a world that is different than observing and interacting … through a flat screen monitor. Once you’re actually embodied in a space, even though you can’t be physically touched, we can be exposed to things that take on a level of realism that could be psychologically assaulting.”
Others agree. “All of these new tools, and all of these new possibilities, could be used for good or for evil,” says Mitch Prinstein, a clinical psychologist and chief science officer for the American Psychological Association. Prinstein also expressed concern for how having the ability to project a different version of yourself into cyberspace might affect young people’s view of themselves when they’re not online. He says it’s “pretty dangerous for adolescents in particular,” because “the idea of being able to fictionalize your identity and receive very different feedback can really mess with a teenager’s identity.”
He adds, “This is just an exacerbation of the problems that we’ve already started to see with the effects of social media. This is creating more loneliness. This is creating far more body image concerns [and] exposure to dangerous content that’s related to suicidality.”
As these new technological possibilities begin to come online and migrate into the mainstream, parents remain the best frontline defense for tweens and teens who might be susceptible to the metaverse’s potential dark side. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed as parents. But several concrete steps can help to minimize these risks.
- Set good boundaries on when, where and how much kids have access to online experiences.
- Keep lines of communication open by talking to your kids about their online interests.
- And perhaps most importantly, build trust and connection by spending time with your kids, listening to them and looking for entertainment options you can enjoy together.
When it comes to technological change, it’s probably going to keep coming and keep presenting new challenges. But as we focus on our relationships with our kids—listening, laughing, enjoying life with them and expressing curiosity about their unique interests—it creates a foundation to shape and influence how they respond to the inevitable challenges that arise.