The next iteration of the internet could be a 3D digital version of society that almost mimics real life – the metaverse. Several tech giants including Meta and Microsoft have already created their own versions. However, in the short time since launch, the metaverse has also proven to be problematic, including reports of sexual assault and racism. From what we have seen so far, it seems clear that the potential mental health implications of the metaverse are likely to be exacerbated versions of the pre-existing problems that have become apparent online.

The launch of the metaverse has brought a plethora of problems with it  

While the metaverse is not yet a reality, it already threatens to bring several issues with it. Some individuals are extremely conscious of their identity and the perception of themselves on social media. This could worsen in a fully immersive alternate world, and individuals could spend a long time within these virtual worlds trying to ensure that their image is portrayed as intended. The risk here is that users of the metaverse could disconnect themselves from other areas of their lives, which could lead to isolation or reduced physical activity. 

The metaverse also increases the chance of cyber abuse, where vulnerable populations cannot always be protected. Bullying could become rife in the metaverse, as it has in the world of online gaming. When players are presented as avatars or have a shield of anonymity, communication is treated differently. In many online games, users often say things that they would not in real life.

Sexual assault

There were also reports of sexual assault during Meta’s beta testing, which is likely to deter those with female avatars from wanting to partake in the metaverse. Unfortunately, it does not stop there—more recently, there has been a case of racism on Meta’s platform, where the N-word was used at a virtual concert in the metaverse by an audience member.

Being immersed in a virtual world can also lead to overstimulation and mental exhaustion. In the event companies introduce policies that require everyday working in the metaverse, it could be detrimental for those who are already addicted to the virtual aspects of the online world. According to the World Journal of Psychiatry, of the 39% of the global population who have access to the internet, 6% have an internet addiction.

The provision of mental health in the metaverse should not be understated. The metaverse may appear to be game-like due to its use of avatars, but when vulnerable populations begin engaging with such platforms, they are likely to face a magnified version of the safety problems that have become apparent on the internet. 

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The metaverse should be used and adopted in moderation 

It is fundamental to understand that when engaging in virtually immersive platforms, one can disconnect at any moment. Protecting vulnerable populations is also crucial. While social media is meant to increase connection, it should be remembered that it has driven many in society to be more alone and disconnected than ever. Ultimately, these online relationships will never be as authentic as those in the real world.

To conclude, with the metaverse, moderation will be key when experiencing this new virtual innovation. As Mark Basa, the global brand manager of HOKK Finance has said, “the deterioration of our mental health begins when we cannot differentiate what is real and what is not”.