Doomscrolling, online comparisons, and isolating behavioural responses are all proof that humans were never really meant to interact in 2D environments, A.K.A. social media. Studies show that our interpersonal relationships are better suited for Web3’s 3D experience of the internet in the metaverse: a persistent version of the internet that blends virtual and physical reality. One of the key components of the metaverse is the use of avatars that act as an extension of our identities and mediate our interactions in different metaverse lands. There is already data suggesting that social interactions in the metaverse via avatars can improve how we interact with one another online.
Comprehensive research still needs to be done before concluding how the metaverse will affect its users’ mental health long term. Still, we can use existing studies to anticipate some of the effects metaverse technologies will have on its users’ psychology. One study by Standford University reveals that avatar appearance alters users’ psychology and behavioural responses in virtual environments. In the study, people assigned tall avatars displayed greater levels of assertiveness and self-esteem than those with short avatars. Similarly, people given attractive ones were more intimate and friendly than those with unattractive avatars. The researchers dubbed this study “The Proteus Effect,” after the Greek God who could morph his appearance at will, referencing the act of self-representation in the metaverse.
It’s human nature to want to express ourselves. While offline, we get piercings, wear self-affirming clothing, and dye our hair in different colours. These differentiating features are popular online too, but the avatars are still similar since most people opt for youthful and attractive features, despite their age or physical appearance. Per the Stanford study, this beauty bias could positively affect online communities since avatar attractiveness is correlated to friendliness. So, in theory, this decision-making should lead to harmonious digital spaces and increase the chances of building meaningful relationships, which builds self-esteem and positively impacts mental health among users. This idea is true in some cases, but we know that it’s not a universal truth, given that there are already seeing cases of cyberbullying and sexual misconduct in the metaverse.
On an individual scale, these idealised versions of ourselves lead to a positive self-image, which is associated with mental well-being. However, this idealisation of self has the potential of impacting peoples’ perception of life offline, running the risk of virtual realities becoming preferable over everyday life. This could potentially lead to escapist behavioural responses and addiction to simulated reality, which cuts down on real-life activities that support mental health, like seeing friends or sleeping. In this scenario, the persistent nature of the metaverse would be detrimental to the user instead of helpful. The metaverse wasn’t designed to replace physical reality, but to extend it virtually. It has the potential to enrich its users’ lives, from meet-ups for people with similar interests across the world to advancing methods of education. Community building and self-monitoring are going to be critical components of online culture as we adopt metaverse technologies into our everyday lives and take care of our mental health while we’re in it.