In the wake of damning revelations from whistle-blower Frances Haugen and the leaking of the “Facebook files”, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg decided it was the right time to go ahead and announce his ambitions for an even more mesmeric and invasive social media experience: the metaverse.
“The next platform will be even more immersive – an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it,” Zuckerberg explained eagerly last October, a little over a month after the Facebook files became public. These files, which were part of Facebook’s own research, revealed that teens blame Instagram for rising rates of anxiety, depression and body image issues, with one in five claiming that the Facebook-owned app makes them feel worse about themselves.
Yet, weeks later, Zuckerberg was already gushing about the infinite possibilities of his coming metaverse. “We are at the beginning of the next chapter for the internet,” began his Founder’s Letter. “Think about how many physical things you have today that could just be holograms in the future.”
In the metaverse, VR headsets and AR glasses will allow users to “visit” wherever they like and be whoever they want to be. Zuckerberg’s vision stretches far beyond gaming and socialising, too; it will eventually encompass virtual workplaces and schools, to which we’ll be able to “teleport instantly as a hologram”.
As part of the first generation raised online, this horrifies me. Privacy and censorship fears aside, we are currently engulfed in what can only be described as a mental health crisis. In the past decade, across multiple countries, rates of anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide among Gen-Zers have risen dramatically.
Rates of eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorders, attention deficit disorders and a host of other psychological issues are also on the increase. In fact, a recent survey shows that Gen Z has the least positive life outlook of all generations, lower levels of emotional and social well-being, more unmet social needs, and were two to three times more likely to report thinking about, planning or attempting suicide from late 2019 to late 2020.
Many of us trace our problems back to social media. Granted, the evidence is mixed: some studies associate social media usage with devastating mental health outcomes, including self-harm and suicidal ideation, while others suggest it has a negligible impact. What we do know, however, is that the psychological well-being of adolescents across the world was relatively stable before it began to decline after 2012. Causation can’t be proved, but this was also the first year that a majority of Americans owned a smartphone, and the period when being on social media became essential among adolescents.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has also observed that between 2009 and 2012, social media platforms changed drastically; Facebook added the “like” button and Twitter added its retweet feature. Tellingly, 2012 was also the year that Instagram was first released on Android, with the app racking up over one million downloads in the first day.
The uneven spread of mental illness also suggests that social media is playing a significant role. Within Gen Z, young girls are the most prominent users of social media and have suffered significantly larger increases in anxiety, depression, and self-harm than boys.
In England and Wales, for example, the number of girls aged between 10 and 24 committing suicide has risen by 94 per cent since 2012. In the US, rates of hospital admissions for self-harm doubled among girls aged 10 to 14 between 2010 and 2014. “One major question is how much proof parents, regulators, and legislators need before intervening to protect vulnerable young people,” Jonathan Haidt warned in a recent article. “The preponderance of the evidence now available is disturbing enough to warrant action.”
Instead of taking action, Zuckerberg is doubling down and preparing to intensify our online experience. Despite assurances that Meta “cares deeply about issues like safety, well-being and mental health”, the company is desperately trying to inveigle its way into the minds of the most mentally vulnerable generation. Zuckerberg has admitted that he’s now trying to shift from serving older users toward young adults, whom he describes as the company’s “north star” demographic. Meta has been busy sponsoring young TikTok influencers to promote metaverse-themed content, in an effort to get Gen-Zers excited about our VR future.
It all feels very sinister. What are the long-term effects of being able to transform into the perfect avatar? What will that do to self-esteem? And what if virtual reality starts to replace physical reality? There’s already growing evidence that the pandemic has taken a toll on Gen Z’s mental health, with the global prevalence of depression and anxiety symptoms in children and adolescents doubling during Covid-19 compared with pre-pandemic estimates. Social isolation and reduced peer interactions likely played a part in this.
Discouragingly, any effort Gen-Zers are now making to improve their mental health – whether it’s by disconnecting from screens, increasing in-person interactions, or spending more time in nature – could be sabotaged by the release of this new and addictive virtual world.
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Sadly, I doubt Gen Z will want to resist the metaverse. We are a generation in which vast numbers report feeling overwhelmingly anxious, isolated, depressed and dissatisfied with their lives. Why would we not pacify ourselves with pixelated experiences and escape reality for a while? What about those of us who are battling eating and body dysmorphic disorders, who will suddenly be able to transform into the metaverse avatar of their choice? What about the millions among Gen Z who are increasingly fearful of face-to-face interactions, or those of us who feel alone in the real world? The temptation to immerse ourselves will be too great.
Tech companies know this. The metaverse will no doubt tap into Gen Z’s vulnerabilities and entice us with its promise of escapism. Meta is already presenting its metaverse as the answer to our problems, alleging that its focus is to help “people connect”, “find communities” and enjoy “the feeling that you’re right there with another person” – all very appealing to a generation which reports “feeling consistently alone”.
For years, tech giants have contributed to my generation feeling insecure, anxious and disconnected, and now it feels as if we’re being conveniently provided with the escape. Feel lonely? Make friends in the metaverse! Feel insecure? Be someone else for the day! Feel anxious? Relax with a VR walk in nature! Like so much of social media, I fear the metaverse will simply take Gen Z’s unfulfilled needs and fill them with shallow and soulless digital experiences that, in the end, just make us feel worse.
Maybe the metaverse will fail or fizzle out, but when society is only now coming to grips with the fallout of a photo-sharing app developed over a decade ago, can we really afford to unleash this immersive VR and just hope for the best? Is it ethical to wait for the data to emerge before we act? Now is surely the time to demand transparency from Meta about how its metaverse could affect public health, and to ensure reliable precautions and age restrictions are put in place.
A fully developed and all-encompassing metaverse may be some time coming, but my generation deserves to know exactly how Meta plans to protect our mental health, and resolve the problems of Facebook and Instagram, before its universe is unveiled. Maybe the kids will be alright. But I’d rather we panic early this time than wait for the whistle-blowers.