The Metaverse Dimension of Addiction
Updated: Jan 28, 2022
Wrapping ones’ mind around the Metaverse is probably like trying to understand the internet back in 1981. The Metaverse is a shift in how we interact with technology. My husband patiently tried to explain the Metaverse to me last night after the news of Microsoft $68 billion deal, and he is still not sure exactly what it is. I didn’t quite understand why Microsoft would dump so much money into a gaming company. Que my 14-year-old son.
He explained that Microsoft bought Activision for their data. He said it was like the reasons Amazon acquired Whole Foods. A typical Whole Foods customer has a similar profile to the Amazon customer and it’s the perfect way to acquire data for new spenders. Microsoft must make a future footprint in Metaverse to compete with Facebook who already has a stronghold in the Metaverse world through their insane amount of data. It’s all about the data and manipulation. Did I mention he's 14?
What I understood is that it's an immersive experience using avatars that you control in a virtual world. Fortnite, Roblox, Minecraft. Our kids are already alarmingly experienced in alternate reality. New customers are needed for the upcoming Metaverse, and the data has been acquired. The Metaverse can include the use of augmented reality and virtual reality to allow users the experience of being “inside” a digital world interacting virtually with other individuals, objects, assets, and environments.
In the Metaverse you can create a whole new identity – a better version of yourself, or even an entirely new person. So, in my Metaverse, I am a never tired humanoid with every superpower from The Incredibles and can cook like Barefoot Contessa but in 60 seconds flat, never sweating or having a bad hair day all while consuming every carbohydrate this side of the Mediterranean without gaining an ounce. My handsome husband is Jason Mamoa’s doppelgänger 2.0 and can finally read my mind. This break from reality is a slippery slope, people. Where is the moral compass guard railing the Metaverse? James Cameron was like Nostradamus when he wrote Avatar.
It’s clear we are about to experience the next Industrial Revolution. Of course, Big Tech and gaming companies are at the forefront of this and perhaps it will be the next big thing in gaming experiences but where else could it lead us? And at what cost? Eye contact, physical connections, real experiences, and ultimately, accountability for our actions. Ethics and morals are central to human decency. Ethics in technology? Maybe I don’t fully understand this yet, as I have always been a bit tech challenged, but I just don’t see how this is good for our children who are still developing their character and identity. I don’t see how this can help anyone’s struggling marriage when the biggest complaint from couples in my office is, “he’s not present” or “I don’t feel connected to her anymore.”
Implications on Mental Health
Although technology comes with a host of benefits, for many it breeds addiction and mental health issues. Research continues to show us that the internet, video games and social media, can cause or exacerbate mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, attention deficit disorder, eating disorders, and can be highly addictive.
Science tells us why the relentless pursuit of pleasure leads to pain. It is so important to find the delicate balance between pleasure and pain, and why now more than ever finding balance is essential. We're living in a time of unprecedented access to high-reward, high-dopamine stimuli: drugs, food, gambling, shopping, gaming, texting, Facebooking, Instagramming, YouTubing, tweeting. "The smartphone is like a hypodermic needle, delivering digital dopamine 24/7. We've all become vulnerable to compulsive overconsumption." This is Your Brain…. on Drugs
Remember the 30-second version of the first PSA, from 1980’s, that shows a man in an apartment who asks if there is anyone out there who still does not understand the dangers of drug abuse. He holds up an egg and says, "This is your brain," before motioning to a frying pan and adding, "This is drugs." He then cracks open the egg, fries them, and says, "This is your brain on drugs." Finally, he looks up at the camera and asks, "Any questions?"
Let’s answer questions about addiction and your brain with science. The root of addiction and mental health centers in the brain. With respect to addiction, substances and 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, your brain will 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, 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 or comment. Cryptocurrency trading and investing releases dopamine every time your investment increases in value. 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 smart phones and computers. The Metaverse might be the crack- cocaine, bringing about a more extreme and fast-acting high to the user.
Social media was meant to connect us, and in many ways, it has. I am sharing this via social media. But it can also be argued that it has driven us to be more alone and distant than ever. Social media users often believe they are connecting with friends or family via social networks, but really, they are at alone at home. All those birthday wishes that Facebook so graciously alerts us too, are usually prepopulated messages without an ounce of thought. Just click and post. I am guilty.
Similarly, social video game experiences also leave the player isolated without real human engagement. This is important to recognize because loneliness can contribute to mental health issues as well as addiction. Social experiences in the Metaverse might feel more real via the use of the technology involved, but like 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.
In her book, Dopamine Nation, author Anne Lembke writes, “We’re all running from pain,” “Some of us take pills. Some of us couch surf while binge-watching Netflix. Some of us read romance novels. We’ll do almost anything to distract ourselves from ourselves. Yet all this trying to insulate ourselves from pain seems only to have made our pain worse.”
Virtual reality can bring escape and relief from the stresses of life and invoke temporary pleasure, but excessive use of technology and virtual reality is associated with many mental health issues including depression, irritability, stress, paranoid ideation, somatic symptoms, among others.
Author Dr. Anna Lembke, medical director of Stanford Addiction Medicine, writes, “We’ve transformed the world from a place of scarcity to a place of overwhelming abundance.”
My primary concern with the Metaverse is addiction. The internet and social media are extremely addictive. We are used to consuming information at an alarmingly fast pace. This leaves you wanting something better every time you scroll down your social media feed.
Every post, picture, or piece of content that engages you is a small dopamine hit in your brain. That is the primary reason why people spend hours on social media.
Consider a virtual world with several times the engaging capacity of social media. The Metaverse would be a parallel reality that has no bounds. You could potentially create a virtual environment that’s more appealing than the real world. Think about the effect that this will have on a person’s life, marriages, friendships.
One can argue that there are potential benefits that this technology can have, so it’s not all doom and gloom. But I hope to provide you with a fresh understanding of the many dangers of addiction in our “hyper-medicated, overstimulated, pleasure-saturated world.” While much of this is speculative, one thing that most of us 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 mental health and well-being. In the meantime, immerse yourself fully in the life that you’ve been given. Stop running from whatever you’re trying to escape, and instead turn, and face whatever it is. If you don’t transform it, you will transmit it.
Silvia Farag, MSW, LSW, runs the Christian Center for Counseling and works with adolescent and adult clients in individual, couples & family therapy. Her personal philosophy is that through human connection, we can foster the encouragement needed to take courageous steps toward creating positive change. She uses evidenced based and strengths-based approaches & believes in the inherent ability of everyone to overcome when they are willing to step into their potential. Therapy illuminates the path so the client can make conscious steps towards emotional health. Her attitude is one of respect and acceptance of each client’s individuality, allowing for the creation of a safe, therapeutic space. Silvia serves with Coptic Women Fellowship, an archdiocese ministry focused on enriching, supporting and strengthening the lives of women, along with the clergy and several accomplished women of the Coptic Orthodox Archdiocese of North America.