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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