Today's teenagers are the first generation in history to grow up in a world where interacting on digital platforms is the norm - through Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Tik Tok, Facebook, YouTube ... and now, through virtual reality. Facebook's rebrand to Meta has attracted much attention in its mission to replace the internet with the "metaverse".
The main motive of Meta is to build social connections through a virtual platform, allowing people to feel close together when they might be physically apart. People can take virtual outings, virtually exercise together, and virtually socialise - they can do virtually anything.
Sounds good, right? But before we give VR a unanimous thumbs up, it's important to also consider the flipside of the coin, and trace back the past few years of history.
When Facebook was created in the mid-2000s, the vast majority of us signed up without much thought or hesitation - we didn't ponder how likes, emojis, and endless digital commenting could superficially satisfy our social needs, and especially the social needs of growing young minds.
Over recent years, however, we have begun to witness the dark side of social media - such as when young people have social approval dosed to them every few minutes (or the absence of approval). Constantly receiving short-term rewards - like being tagged in a photo - fuels young people's perceived need to "filter" their lives in a certain way to ensure they keep receiving these rewards.
The metaverse takes "filtering" to a new level. It allows people to customise their personal avatars to look exactly how they want them to. Research has shown that increased Facebook and Instagram use contributes to greater body dissatisfaction in teenagers, due to the constant exposure to unrealistic standards of attractiveness. This begs not only one, but a few questions: Is the avatar the newest unrealistic standard of beauty? What happens when it's time to step out of virtual reality and back into the real world? Will teenagers feel even more dissatisfaction with their image when they look in the real-life mirror?
The implications of the metaverse also extend beyond the individual and into the ways we relate to others. If we are hosting digital parties and having virtual dinners with our friends, will we be less inclined to have in-person interactions?
Indeed, when the internet first came out, online interactions replaced in-person communication with family and friends. Given that the metaverse has been described as the next iteration of the internet, what can we expect this time around?
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it's that isolation from others can be detrimental for physical and mental wellbeing, and for young people in particular. Having friendships has been likened to a "behavioural vaccine", buffering against physical and mental health problems, and is critical for young people's emotional development. But it's the in-person friendships that matter most - nonverbal cues like facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice help us interpret the social world and develop the skills to communicate effectively.
What can be done to help young people nurture their in-person relationships? Schools are beginning to take student wellbeing more seriously, especially since the pandemic presented a significant stressor for adolescents. But a specific focus is needed for wellbeing teachings to young people - an emphasis on how to build authentic friendships that create a sense of true belonging. If young people feel empowered to achieve authentic and meaningful connections, they may just be willing to inch further and further away from the screen and into the possibilities of real life.
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