A New Age of Digital Addiction - What The Metaverse Means for Mental Health and Digital Addiction

2022 is here, and technology companies are racing to develop a new digital world – the Metaverse.  While the technology of the Metaverse has existed for quite some time, such as virtual reality and augmented reality, the infrastructure and platforms for widespread use are still in its infancy and visionaries of what the Metaverse is to become in the future will assure you that this new digital world is just getting started.  As such, it is difficult to determine what exactly the mental health implications of the Metaverse are and what conclusions can be drawn to the impact it will have on digital addiction.  Nonetheless, it’s never too early to begin a conversation surrounding this topic of Metaverse addiction and the impact the Metaverse will have on mental health and digital addictions as a whole.

What Is The Metaverse?

You may have heard about the Metaverse, but what exactly is it?  Wrapping ones’ mind around the Metaverse is probably akin to what it was like understanding the internet in the 1970’s.  Put broadly, the Metaverse is a shift in how we interact with technology.  If we think of the internet as two-dimensional, we can think of the Metaverse as three-dimensional.  It is an immersive experience through the use of digital selves, or avatars.  The Metaverse can include the use of augmented reality and/or virtual reality to allow users the experience of being “inside” the internet interacting digitally with other individuals, objects, assets and environments.  As with all technology, there is sure to be a vast array of mental, physical and emotional benefits in the future of the Metaverse, but there are also bound to be negative side-effects and drawdowns.  One such problem we can anticipate is an exacerbation of an already growing mental health epidemic and digital addiction epidemic surrounding the future of what the Metaverse is to bring.

What Can We Speculate About Metaverse Addiction and Implications on Mental Health?

Although technology comes with a host of benefits, for many it breeds addiction and mental health issues.  This was recently highlighted in uncovered social media documents pertaining to social media platforms.  A Facebook (Meta Platforms) whistleblower working on the Metaverse has warned that the Metaverse will indeed be addictive.  Beyond whistleblower reports and uncovered documents, research has shown that the internet, video games and social media in particular, can cause or exacerbate mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, attention deficit disorder, eating disorders, body dysmorphia disorder, and can be highly addictive.  There are many reasons for this, a few of which are worth discussing and speculating on in relation to the Metaverse.

The Metaverse and the Brain

The root of addiction and mental health centers in the brain.  With respect to addiction, addictive substances and addictive behaviors stimulate the region of the brain responsible for pleasure.  Through stimulating the release of “feel good” neurotransmitters such as dopamine, the brain begins to associate those substances or behaviors with feelings of pleasure.  Through repetition, the brain and individual eventually begin to rely on that experience to feel good, and eventually to feel normal.  In other words, the individual has built a dependence to it and become addicted to it, both psychologically and physiologically.

Video games release dopamine every time you advance towards the goal of the game, such as moving on to another level.  Social media releases dopamine every time you get a follow, like, comment or other engagement.  Cryptocurrency trading and investing releases dopamine every time your investment increases in value, or decreases if you are shorting the currency.  When speculating on the Metaverse, everything seems to be what we currently experience in our digital world but on steroids.  All virtual interactions are expected to be more intense and more stimulating, feeling much more real than what we currently experience through our phones, tablets and computers.  In making an analogy to drugs, the Metaverse might be the fentanyl of heroin or the crack of cocaine; bringing about a more extreme and fast-acting high to the user.  We can think of the impact this will have on virtual pornography addictions, virtual video game addictions, virtual social media addictions, virtual gambling addictions, etc.

The Metaverse and Relationships

Social media was meant to connect us, and in many ways it has, but it can also be argued that it has driven us to be more alone and distant than ever.  Interactions via social networks are not as authentic or satisfying as real-world relationships.  Social media users often believe they are connecting with friends or family via social networks, but really they are at home and alone.  Similarly, social video game experiences also leave the player isolated without real human engagement.  This is important to recognize because loneliness can contribute to or exacerbate mental health issues as well as addiction.  Social experiences in the Metaverse might feel more real via the use of the technology involved, but similarly to current digital experiences the individual within the Metaverse will still be alone.  True human engagement and connection is an important aspect of our lives and our mental wellbeing that need to be maintained with or without a Metaverse.

The Metaverse and Mental Health

Digital use can bring escape and relief from the stresses of life and invoke temporary pleasure, but excessive digital use is associated with many mental health issues including depression, irritability, stress, paranoid ideation, somatic symptoms, and psychoses, among others.  While pointing out the negative consequences of technology, it is also important to recognize that virtual reality is used in the treatment of various mental health issues such as PTSD, phobias and various anxiety disorders as well as delusions and hallucinations.  Technology has also revolutionized the ways in which we can seek out and access professional help as well as support from friends, family or complete strangers.  There are virtual reality companies working on mental wellness applications for this space, and there is much excitement about the potential benefits that this technology can have on our wellbeing; so it’s not all doom and gloom.  While much of this article is speculative, one thing that most should agree on is that much more research needs to be done to understand the ways in which the Metaverse can and will impact our mood and behavior.

Signs of Digital Addiction

  1. Using your digital device for longer durations than intended.
  2. Being unable to moderate or abstain from your digital use.
  3. Spending excessive time thinking about digital use when not digitally active.
  4. Engaging with digital use compulsively or experiencing cravings and urges to use your digital device when not using it.
  5. Digital use is contributing to unmanageability or neglect in important life areas such as work, school, hygiene, sleep, self-care or relationships.
  6. Continued digital use despite it contributing to problems in your life.
  7. Loss of interest in social and leisure activities that you once found pleasurable at the expense of digital use.
  8. Using digital devices in dangerous situations such as when operating a motor vehicle, crossing the street, cooking, or engaging in another potentially dangerous activity.
  9. Experiencing stress, anxiety, low mood, irritability, or other unwanted and unhealthy mental health symptoms as a result of digital use yet continuing to engage with digital devices, or if you experience these symptoms when not digitally engaged.
  10. Needing to engage in digital use more frequently and for longer durations to receive the same sense of gratification, or if you find yourself engaging in digital use to induce pleasure or escape reality.
  11. Lying or hiding digital use from your loved ones, teachers, supervisor, colleagues or other individuals.

What Can I Do If I or My Loved One Has a Digital Addiction?

Digital addictions can be extremely harmful, wreaking havoc on mental, physical, emotional, financial, and social wellbeing and consume individuals to the point of having devastating effects on daily functioning and relationships.  As such, it is important to be aware of the signs of digital addiction and reach out for help from a digital addiction specialist if you or a loved one are struggling with a digital dependence.  If unable to moderate or abstain from digital use on your own, seek out an addiction therapist or addiction psychiatrist specializing in digital addiction.  Methods of treatment may include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and other behavioral modification therapies as well as medication therapy if needed to address underlying mental health concerns.  Family therapy or couples therapy for digital addiction can also be useful to help loved ones learn about digital addiction and how to best support their loved one in recovery while also focusing on their own wellbeing.  Group therapy or mutual help groups can also be helpful to help reduce feelings of isolation, build support, and learn tools for recovery.  Depending on the severity of the digital addiction, some individuals may benefit from 28+ days of inpatient treatment to help build a foundation for their recovery before beginning to work on an outpatient basis with an addition therapist, addiction coach, or addiction psychiatrist.

The Metaverse will bring about an evolution of our technological age, and generate a host of benefits such as a reduced carbon footprint, medical advances, immersive educational experiences, and much more.  Nonetheless, as with other existing technology, many will be susceptible to digital addiction via the Metaverse and adverse mental health implications as a result of this digital advancement as we now are with Internet Addiction Disorder and other technology addictions.  It is critical to be mindful of digital dependence, aware of the signs of a digital addiction, and informed of the steps one can take to curb their digital dependence as well as knowledgeable in the digital addiction treatment options that are available should one need professional help from a digital addiction specialist.

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Lin Sternlicht & Aaron Sternlicht

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