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Mental health and the Metaverse: Can a digital existence ever be better for us than real life?


In 2007, Brad Shreve was a stripper, and a good one too. 

With his Adonis-like looks and party-boy charm he quickly earned enough to buy his dream house on the beach. 

He spent his days building beautiful bamboo furniture out on the veranda, then nights dancing in clubs until dawn. ‘I was completely outgoing, a total extrovert,’ he tells Metro.co.uk, laughing. ‘I was hot and cocky.’

In fact, he was so confident that he even bought a blimp to fly about in, emblazoned with his own face. 

If Brad’s extravagant life seems too good to be real, that is because it wasn’t. 

This was the existence he had crafted for himself while he sat in front of a computer for more than 12 hours a day, every day, for four years. 

Brad was addicted to the massively multiplayer online role-playing game Second Life, an early incarnation of the many growing digital lands that are now collectively known as the metaverse. Within the experience people create an avatar to interact with a computer-generated environment and other users. 

They can socialise, party, make money, form relationships and even have sex — just like reality. Second Life, which was created by Linden Labs in 2003 and had more than a million users at its peak, is now in Brad’s past. 

However, for many, interacting via avatars online is set to be the future. Why? Because the metaverse now has big tech’s backing. In October 2021, Meta boss Mark Zuckerberg unveiled his vision; a digital land named Horizon Worlds where people communicate via virtual reality headsets. 

Microsoft is also investing in the concept, following its acquisition of gaming company, Activision, earlier this year. But how will the inevitable mass adoption of the metaverse affect users’ mental health, and will many find the concept so captivating it starts to eat away at reality? 

Brad explains that the appeal of the metaverse is ‘you can have a life you could never have in the real world.’

Brad and his Second Life avatar, who he crafted for himself while he sat in front of a computer for more than 12 hours a day, every day, for four years (Picture: Supplied)

He joined Second Life when he had been newly diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He was trialling medication and nothing seemed to be working.

‘First of all, with my anxiety level and the meds, I couldn’t leave the house. I became completely agoraphobic. I could hardly speak and I was comfortable there,’ he says. ‘I could have bought a yacht. At that time I was really overweight [but in the game] I was able to buy top-of-the-line clothing. I looked great and could go to places I never dreamed possible.’

 Brad credits the virtual world with saving his life, but also believes he would have got better from his mental health struggles much sooner if he hadn’t been so hooked. 

The word metaverse was first coined in 1992 by writer Neal Stephenson in his dystopian sci-fi novel ‘Snow Crash’. But, as Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, pointed out in an interview with AP News, in Stephenson’s book it was ‘a thing that people used to numb themselves when their lives were horrible.’

She also explained these immersive environments are designed to be ‘extremely addictive and they encourage people to unplug from the reality we actually live.’

This was true for a South Korean couple, back in 2010, who tragically let their three month-old baby starve as they spent 12 hours a day raising a virtual daughter in the Second Life-style game Prius Online. 

Having both lost their jobs, police reported that the couple ‘indulged themselves’ in the game ‘so as to escape from reality.’ 

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen said that immersive environments are designed to be ‘extremely addictive’ (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

While the metaverse is in its infancy, we do know that excessive social media use is linked to mental health problems including depression, paranoid ideation, somatic symptoms, and psychoses. 

15% of people aged 23-38 admit to being addicted to social media, Statista reports, with this number rising to 40% between the ages of 18 to 22. 

However, Phil Reed, a professor of psychology at Swansea University, predicts that use of the metaverse will be just as compulsive. He is also sure this new frontier of the internet will ‘stop people facing the problems that they really need to face,’ but the true dangers lie in the fact it is further removed from ‘real communication.’

Reed explains to Metro.co.uk that the schizophrenic-like varieties of psychoses ‘involve a disconnection from reality and anything that enhances that disconnect or reinforces it can potentially be quite damaging.’ 

Professor Phil Reed fears that the metaverse will stop people facing the problems that they really need to face (Picture: Supplied)

His other concern is that because derealisation is a symptom of extreme anxiety and PTSD the distance from real life the metaverse provides ‘could feed into these anxiety related symptoms.’

Another former Second Life addict, identified only as Miles, tells Metro.co.uk he’s suffered from social anxiety his whole life. A self-professed ‘total nerd’, he first heard of the game via Popular Science magazine in the mid-noughties, when he was 14. ‘I was kind of blown away,’ he reveals.

‘Second Life has already been around for a little while at this point. So people had already built lots of stuff. 

‘There was lots to explore and lots of people around. It seemed totally harmless at first, but I started spending more and more time on the game.’

By the time he was 15, Miles’ addiction to Second Life was so bad that he says it was ‘really all I wanted to do.’

Miles admits that Second Life seemed totally harmless at first (Picture: Getty Images)

His schoolwork began to suffer as he thought about the game all through class then neglected his homework. However, Miles wasn’t using his virtual life to have fun or attend parties as Brad did.

Instead, he spent his days engaging in military role-play. The teenager was the leader of a battalion, fighting against armies of avatars for hours every evening and all weekend. 

‘It was still just a game, but people took it pretty seriously,’ he says. His double life as both schoolboy and soldier came to an abrupt end for reasons outside of his control: ‘My computer broke and the cheap new one I got as a replacement couldn’t run the game.’

Miles has mixed feelings about his time spent on Second Life. ‘There’s a point where it can go a little bit too far and you can find that you’re spending so much time in there that you’re neglecting your real life,’ he explains.

However, on the other hand, as a nervous teen, he ‘got a lot out of it socially.’  As a figure of authority he commanded respect. Plus, he had ‘a lot more friends in the game’ than he did at school. 

This is one of the reasons that Peter Klein, a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist, thinks that the metaverse could have a positive impact on those with mental health struggles.

Psychotherapist Peter Klein believes that the metaverse can help someone feel less threatened when confronting a mental health issue (Picture: Supplied)

If someone has social anxiety ‘it can help to talk to people virtually because that sense of threat that they feel about people in person might be somewhat absent,’  he tells Metro.co.uk.

He adds that people will be able to confront phobias ‘in a very safe and controlled manner and that can really preclude them going out and actually confronting what they feel in person.’ 

According to a meta-analysis undertaken by JMIR Mental Health of a large number of trials, virtual reality is shown to effectively supports cognitive behavioural therapy [CBT] in treating anxiety and depression. 

That said, the findings of clinical studies are very different from the wild west of a digital world where people, emboldened by the anonymity of avatars, can do and say what they like without checks. 

Mimi Butlin, a disability activist and artist, welcomes any platform that will make socialising easier. She hopes the metaverse might also allow for a more inclusive environment and level the playing field, which could be helpful in combating isolation and depression. ‘For those who are predominantly housebound the metaverse could be really beneficial,’ she tells Metro.co.uk. 

Digital spaces offer better access than the real world, says Mimi (Picture: Supplied)

‘Social media has been such a vital tool for disabled and chronically ill beings to have a social life and this will be an extension of that. It will also be a chance for people to do things that are inaccessible to them in the real world.’ 

These digital spaces might also offer easier access to mental health resources and therapy. 

When Brad first joined Second Life he was 10-years sober, and immediately started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in a virtual hut in the woods. Without leaving his home, he could get support. 

Equally, the Covid-19 pandemic forcing people to stay home enabled remote therapy, or telepsychology, to be trialled and it was shown to work. But in regards to what effect using the metaverse will have on public mental health, only time will tell. 

With companies such Microsoft and Meta driving the concept forward, the big questions is not if we will use it, but are we ready? Society hasn’t been given the space to properly consider the consequences of life online, both good and bad. 

As Reed puts it, no ‘other thing that would impact this many people, a new drug, a new recreational activity, nothing, would be allowed to proliferate this quickly, without appropriate checks.’

‘But,’ he adds, ‘social media seems to do that and seems to be allowed to do that… and that is the concern.’

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing Claie.Wilson@metro.co.uk 

Share your views in the comments below.


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