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Mark Zuckerberg needs a reality check. Why the metaverse can be a health risk

The amount of time people are spending online, engrossed in their digital persona, can lead to dangerous amounts of isolation.

The amount of time people are spending online, engrossed in their digital persona, can lead to dangerous amounts of isolation. Photo: Getty

It will probably not surprise many that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has a disturbing theory about reality.

“When you say ‘the real world’,” he told podcaster Joe Rogan last month, “I call that the physical world, and I think the combination of the physical and digital world, is increasingly the real world.”

Zuckerberg’s enthusiasm for digital reality stems from his creation of the metaverse, an integrated network of 3D virtual worlds, which you enter through a virtual reality headset.

Users navigate these worlds by adopting avatars to represent themselves. Zuckerberg is fine with all that because it means “you’re inside of, rather than just looking at” the internet.

Besides, he stands to make even more billions of dollars if he convinces enough people of this alternative reality. But he didn’t say that.

Welcome to dreamworld

The problem with living inside the internet though, is that it’s like living inside a dream. And no matter how real the dream — sorry, the internet — might seem, at some point you have to come back to reality.

And the further you immerse yourself into a digital identity the more you risk losing your sense of self. Sociologists call this the Proteus Effect.

The Proteus Effect says that people who spend considerable time and energy creating their virtual self tend to absorb the imaginary and/or physical attributes of their digital identity. This usually triggers notable changes in their real-life behaviour.

The amount of time people are spending online, engrossed in their digital persona, can lead to dangerous amounts of isolation.

“A reliance or overuse of online material is certainly connected to an increase in depression and anxiety,” says Dr Anthony Harris, clinical director of the Brain Dynamics Centre at Sydney’s Westmead Institute for Medical Research.

“That’s been best documented in young people, as they are the group within our society that uses it the most.”

Gripped by a virtual addiction

Overseas studies bear this out. Cases of social withdrawal caused by virtual engagement increased so much in Japan that psychiatrist Professor Tamaki Saito diagnosed the condition as “hikkomori”.
Individuals who are diagnosed as hikkomori are reluctant to leave their homes, often due to becoming addicted to virtual gaming.

This addiction increases the risk of developing mental health disorders, such as anxiety and psychosis.

This pandemic of virtual obsession has become so prevalent it has received global medical recognition. The fifth revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders included the term “internet gaming disorder” under the section “Conditions for further study.”

Preserving a sense of self and reality, along with maintaining face-to-face relationships with others, are vital to maintaining positive mental health.

Zuckerberg’s metaverse is the antithesis of this.

It threatens our core relationships and risks generating mental illness in users.

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