As Virtual Reality rolls out, will addiction follow?

Virtual Reality (VR) | American's new addiction?

Psychiatrist Keith Ablow is likely bracing himself for an onslaught of problems associated with the use of virtual reality (VR) devices as they roll into American homes like never before in 2016. In May 2014, Ablow sounded the alarm regarding VR's addictive potentiality. In an article published in BBC news, Ablow states that like most drugs, technological drugs like facebook and VR increase the pleasure centers of the brain, which in some cases "causes people to become psychiatrically ill." He goes on to theorize that Oculus virtual reality "will make matters worse." Oculus Rift creators recently announced that the device will sell for $599, and it seems people around the country are willing to shell out the money to get their hands on this new device.

reSTART happens to agree with Dr. Ablow in his concern for America's children, and the likely impact these devices will have on users. Seven years of evidence from the reSTART team demonstrates that heavy digital media use (e.g., problematic video gaming, cell phone overuse, binge surfing, etc.) is positively associated an intensity in mental health symptoms such as depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, and in many cases, autism spectrum traits and features.  We concur with Dr. Albow's view that VR may be toxic to the developing brain. Currently there is no longitudinal data showing the safety and efficacy of virtual reality. We as a society are conducting a grand experiment on young people, and early adopters. Although VR use has been demonstrated to have some positive effects in the lab, an experiment of this magnitude is likely to bring out the negative effects of VR. Current research shows that upwards of 10% of the tech using population is in need for some form of treatment. VR may increase these stats. 

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Dispensing Virtual Reality: Meet the new pushers

VR and the mega-billion dollar dealers

by Cosette Rae, MSW, LICSW, CDWF

Virtual reality is gearing up and ready to launch into living rooms, bedrooms, family rooms, dormitories, and academic institutions around the world. Accompanying this new brain changer is a whole cast of corporate pushers in the form of Oculus Rift by Facebook, The Vive by HTC and Valve, Morpheus by Sony, Hololens by Microsoft, and Gear by Samsung. Virtual reality is being called the next "ginormous" tech advance which is thought to be as revolutionary as the invention of the smart phone. And staking claim in this new digital land grab are the tech giants.

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Like dealers on street corners, corporate dealers understand our need for more, higher, better, different, and our willingness to part with our time, money and relationships for the next relative high, and they're investing billions to ensure we take a hit. Armed with a plethora of scientific information on human behavior, coupled with the brain's quest for rewards in the form of dopamine, these pushers are intent on making the perfect designer cocktail. When VR is released, the receptors in our brain encourage us to seek more. And more. And more. Unlike LSD, meth, and cocaine, this close cousin to chemicals will pack even more into our activation of neurochemistry in the form of high achievement potentiality, social connection (leagues and guilds), grinding, and absolute endless novelty which brings us back time again. Take a back seat boredom, VR will take you to anywhere and everywhere you've ever wanted to go and soon you won't need to leave the privacy of your own room to get there.

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Virtual Reality: How addictive is it?

VR: A cautionary tale

by Cosette Rae, MSW, LICSW, CDWF

In early 2016, Oculus Rift, a device which allows users to engage in a virtual reality experience will be marketed to users worldwide. There are no longitudinal studies investigating the long term effects of VR on children and adults. Nor is there published research on the Oculus Rift device itself since its acquisition by Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg for $2 billion dollars in March of 2014. In spite of the paucity of research into the long term physical-psycho-social-developmental effects of VR, psychiatrists, counselors, social workers, and many other healthcare professionals (especially those in the addiction field) are expressing growing concern about an understudied technology which may alter brain chemistry in ways yet fully understood. 

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Research confirms that digital media use is correlated with obesity, sleep problems, increased aggression, and addiction in children and adults according to research presented at the National Academy of Sciences, Sakler Colloguium series organized by Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra of the Children and Screens Institute of Digital Media and Child Development. During this conference, Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford University shared research on the topic of "Children's Acquisition of False Memories in Virtual Reality," stating that "the brain cannot tell the difference between an actual or virtual experience." This "presence" as it's called in the VR field, will open a brave new world of exploration to users. While there are plenty of positive uses of VR currently being explored in the areas of pain management, cultural sensitivity, and educational exploration, nefarious uses of this new medium will inevitably arise in the months and years ahead. In some circles, there is talk that VR will revolutionize the adult entertainment industry. 

Blending the lines between sex and video gaming may lead to a powerfully addictive experience. Similar to those who experience drug or alcohol addiction, approximately 8-10% of Internet users, video gamers and chronic cell phone users suffer from an addiction to their tech activities of choice. While research into the impact of Internet and video gaming use on the developing person continues to grow, a large number of professionals are beginning to witness the side-effects (e.g., depression, anxiety, adhd, and autism spectrum disorder) of digital media use in their clients. Will VR be the next ultra-addictive medium?

Perhaps, rather than spending the next decade debating whether VR is addictive, we might be better served to focus on the ways this new medium will change our lives, and our brains for generations to come. Consider this a cautionary tale. 

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