A recently released white paper, Youth, Mental Health, and the Metaverse: Reviewing the Literature, presents a substantial review of literature exploring what we know about the risks and benefits of adolescent engagement with online social technologies, as a step toward anticipating and hopefully helping to shape the next iteration of the social internet. The paper is part of the Youth, Mental Health and the Metaverse project, commissioned by The Jed Foundation in collaboration with Raising Good Gamers. The paper emphasizes that a range of diverse stakeholders must work together to steward forward a vision of the metaverse that takes the interests, needs, and vulnerabilities of youth into account, while also providing them with the tools they need to support their mental health. There are important roles to be played by youth, platforms, guardians, policy makers, and professionals, in both counteracting metaverse-linked risks, and in amplifying its benefits. The implications of the research covered in the paper are multifaceted, and include:
- A need for deliberate and mindful approaches to create metaverse-like online platforms and environments that foster positive development among adolescents.
- The implementation of robust guardrails and supports to protect youth from potential risks and harmful experiences online. This may involve age-appropriate content filters, promoting digital literacy and responsible online behavior, and providing support mechanisms for youth who may encounter negative or harmful content or interactions.
- Scaffolds and supports for youth as they enter metaverse-like spaces, especially girls.
While the paper focuses specifically on research related to youth ages 13-24, the authors highlight that technologies developed with teens in mind will be used by pre-teens. We must consider how their pre-teen experiences with metaverse-like spaces may affect their mental health as teenagers. Partnerships between researchers and technology developers can support this work.
Anticipating The Metaverse
In the realm of digital evolution, the metaverse has emerged as a captivating concept, tracing its roots back to Neal Stephenson’s visionary 1992 sci-fi novel, Snow Crash. Today, it has transcended the boundaries of science fiction to become a buzzword in both the tech industry and mainstream media. It’s hailed as the next frontier of the social internet, promising an interconnected virtual world where boundaries blur, and possibilities abound. Platforms like Second Life, Minecraft, Roblox, and Fortnite have already given youth a taste of this interconnectedness, fostering not just gameplay but also collaborative work, learning, play, and activism. Adjacent technologies like Discord and Twitch extend these social spaces, while platforms such as TikTok and YouTube offer avenues for creativity, sharing, curation, and connection. Although the exact nature of the metaverse is still unclear, we can gain valuable insights by examining research on youth mental health as it relates to the technologies upon which the metaverse will likely be built: social media, games, and AR/VR technologies. This analysis will enable us to prepare for the research, regulatory measures, and design strategies necessary to both harness the positive potential of the metaverse and ensure the protection of vulnerable youth.
Snapshot of Our Findings
Our review resulted in meaningful findings. For example:
- The current state of evidence does not support existing fears that technology is the driver of mental health problems among youth.
- Screen time alone is not a reliable indicator of mental health outcomes, as other factors, such as sleep and bullying for example, are more powerful determinants of wellbeing in young people than digital screen use.
- Peers and access to social support carry important protective effects for young people’s wellbeing. Metaverse-like spaces provide crucial social support to LGBTQ+ youth, for example, as well as youth from minoritized communities.
- Exposure to harmful content such as eating disorder content, content related to self-injurious thoughts and behaviors (SITB), and addictive substances content were found to be associated with negative mental health outcomes in youth, as is exposure to cyberbullying, hate speech, and sexual harassment. The role played by algorithms and moderation in exposing youth to harmful content is in need of further study.
- One population that may be particularly vulnerable to negative mental health effects in the metaverse is adolescent girls. Generally, girls are at a greater risk of experiencing mental health disorders than boys starting in puberty and are also more relationally inclined, which makes the social aspects of metaverse-like spaces more impactful. The metaverse needs to be designed with guardrails and scaffolds that support youth as they enter these spaces, especially girls.
- Family, friends, and educators can play a significant role in reducing risks and amplifying benefits by providing social support and guidance around digital technology use.
- Youth have shown that they are not powerless against exposure to risks online and use online platforms to combat harmful content, call attention to misinformation, and share mental health resources with others.
- Youth engage in a wide range of supportive behaviors online that could be amplified and supported to promote wellbeing.
This paper is a product of the Raising Good Gamers project at the Connected Learning Lab at the University of California, Irvine, an interdisciplinary research institute dedicated to studying, designing, and mobilizing digital technology in youth-centered and equitable ways. For recommendations emerging from the findings outlined here, please see Can the Metaverse Be Good for Youth Mental Health? Youth-Centered Strategies for Ensuring and Enhancing the Mental Health and Safety of Young People in the Metaverse.
Authors: Katie Salen Tekinbaş, Madison E. Taylor, Andre Adame, Stephen M. Schueller, F. Ria Khan