How the Metaverse Could Help with Social Anxiety 

When we think about the challenges that the Metaverse will bring to the human psyche, our imagination goes wild. I am pretty sure that living in the Metaverse will be highly problematic for many people, but that’s not to say it won’t bring positive opportunities for people who suffer from mental disorders. 

 We know that having another person with us can reduce anxiety. This concept is called social buffering. But can this help people suffering from social anxiety (a disorder characterized by feeling anxious to  embarrass oneself in social situations). Could an avatar take over the role of a soothing companion?

 That is the question posed in a study by the Würzburg University Hospital and Zhengzhou University (China) in December 2021.

Metaverse Social Anxiety

An Avatar as a Companion Against Anxiety

 

The 2021 study compared the impact of having a real person versus a virtual avatar as a companion in a situation where participants had to listen to anxiety-inducing sounds. 208 men and women went through the process. 

 

The results:

  • Women responded more strongly to fear-inducing sounds than man
  • Women benefited more from having another person with them, if they have no social anxiety 
  • Women with and without social anxiety benefits from having a virtual avatar with them
  • Men did not benefit from social buffering to the same degree as women.

  

The Metaverse is not just a virtual world on the internet. It is the fusion of the digital and the tangible world. And that’s where I see a benefit for those with social anxiety. When the Metaverse is fully functioning, we can all have virtual friends that we can see and talk to. These virtual avatars will be with us when we’re at home or on our way to the supermarket. Only we can see them, and they will give us comfort and security. 

 I don’t believe that loneliness will become less of a problem in the future, so there’s a place for virtual avatars for all of us, regardless of whether we suffer from social anxiety or not. People in retirement homes could benefit massively, as we’ve seen the isolation crisis worsen as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. .  

 

What Might a Metaverse Application for Social Anxiety Look Like? 

 To be able to take these avatars with us to the supermarket or on a train journey, we need to project them with AR (augmented reality) into the real world. Very soon we will have lightweight glasses that will be able to do this –  AR glasses that we can’t distinguish from normal reading glasses. Apple has a whole team working on such a project right now, and it could be the next big thing since the iPhone. 

 A social avatar app could be just a normal app on the App Store of such AR-goggles and a basic version might even be even free;  if you want to edit the face or body of your avatar you can purchase an upgrade. That way, you are able to design yourself the perfect companion to keep with everywhere you go. You will be able to change its voice, and I can imagine that there will be a wide community of modders that design a whole range of different clothing and hairstyle options for your avatar.

 At the beginning, it’s likely that an avatar would just be a person walking with you and saying basic phrases,  but thanks to the rapid rise of AI and machine learning, your avatar could soon have its own personality and maybe even the ability to project feelings.

 

The Problems of Having a Virtual Avatar Around

As we know from the movie HER with Scarlett Johansson as Samantha – an  artificially intelligent operating system – having a virtual avatar exist alongside you can lead to problems. People could become even less enticed to search for real social interactions and social anxiety could even increase, as avatar companions are just an avoidance mechanism. It would be good for programs to have an inbuilt function for social anxiety therapy so that avatars can help their users rather than inhibit them – perhaps exposing people to new and varieds social situations, remaining in the background to make these instances easier to deal with.

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