Ep. 24 – Metaverse & Wellbeing
How will our wellbeing be affected by spending more time online in virtual worlds in the metaverse? Episode 24 explores what might help and hinder our health and wellbeing, even though it’s still early days, including avatars and myopia.
In Season 4 of the Creating Cadence podcast, we’re exploring Web 3, the Metaverse, Blockchain and other connected concepts and enabling technologies. To help create a foundation of understanding for how they may impact on our resilience, wellbeing, creativity and productivity in the near and far future.
Any resources referenced in the episode are listed below the transcript.
Creating Cadence Transcript – Ep. 24
Hi and welcome to Creating Cadence, a podcast for life and work in motion.
I’m your host Mich Bondesio, a writer, coach, consultant and the founder of Growth Sessions.
The aim of my work is to help people develop better work life-cadence and more mindful approaches to work. To support their creativity, productivity and wellbeing, and manage their time, attention and stress better.
This podcast is an accompaniment to this work, where I dive deeper on topics including digital wellness, intentional productivity, emerging technologies and the future of work.
So this is episode 24 of the Creating Cadence podcast, and the fourth episode of season 4, recorded in November 2021.
In this season, we’re embarking on a journey of discovery to understand the new frontiers of Web 3.0 and the metaverse, the converging technologies which enable them to exist, and the impact they might have on how we live and work.
In the past three episodes of Season 4, I’ve attempted to set the scene to help create a basic level of understanding of what might currently be foreign concepts for many of you. In the next two episodes, I’m exploring the perceived pros and cons of web 3 and the metaverse on our wellbeing, creativity and productivity.
This episode, No 24, looks specifically at wellbeing and what could help and hinder us as we engage with these new technologies . In the next episode, I’ll then cover the productivity and creativity elements.
If you haven’t listened to episodes 21, 22 and 23, I recommend doing so before you tackle this one.
But if you’re ready, let’s dive in…
Our digital wellness has been under threat from our digital tools and habits for a good long while, and well before we started falling down this new rabbit hole.
So, I’m going to start with the downsides, because we know a little more about how our existing digital and tech tools already affect us, and it is highly likely that some of these new technologies can and will affect us in the same way going forward.
But I will be talking about potential positives too, as the increased awareness of how these tools impact on us, is pushing some organisations, developers and designers to improve their tools so that they support us better. Some of the potential positives are speculative though, as we have insufficient research at this stage, and this new landscape is ever-changing despite still being in its infancy.
A quick side note, this episode isn’t about trashing technology. It’s a part of our lives, and it’s not going away. But understanding the baseline of how it can and does affect us, and the dangers of using it, enables us to be more aware and intentional in how we use it. And my feeling is that this intentionality will become even more important as we spend more time in these new virtual worlds.
So, as a result of the pandemic, we already know that we are spending more time online. Our work days have extended, and work and home lives are blended.
The average time in front of screens (be they your phone, computer, or tablet) is currently 9-10 hours per day of our waking life, and much more for some. That does not take into account how our bodies and minds might engage with tech when we’re sleeping (for example you might have an oura ring or other wearable that tracks your sleep and physical functions)
Extended periods online can have a negative effect on our physiology, our cognition, our focus and our mood.
It can cause cognitive fatigue and eye strain. And also an marked increase in myopia, or short sightedness.
As someone who works online and whose glasses prescription has changed three times in three years, I can vouch for this being the case.
What is concerning is that recent studies are finding that extended screen use is causing the lenses in our eyes to elongate, because we’re constantly doing what is known as “near work”, without exercising our eye muscles by looking further away regularly.
This is exacerbated with phone and tablet use as we hold them close to our bodies because they are extensions of our hands.
And there is a much higher incidence of younger users needing glasses earlier than is typical, because our children are spending more time online as part of both their schooling, and their play.
When we use these new tech devices, such as headsets, to access virtual and augmented realities, we’re freeing up our hands. So that potentially enables us to move more as we aren’t bound by a desk, and so we don’t need to be so sedentary in our device usage. However, I do wonder if the close proximity of VR and AR headsets will also compromise our eye sight? This is something that will need to be addressed.
There are other ways that our tools, and our behaviours around how we use them, can also affect us negatively.
When it comes to work, if we’re working from our inbox all the time, then we’re part of what Cal Newport calls the Hyperactive Hive Mind.
I’ve discussed this before in previous podcast episodes, but what this means is that we’re part of a perpetual synchronous conversation. The conversation isn’t necessarily governed by us, which forces us to work in a reactive mode to other people’s demands. It raises our stress levels, and it contributes to the fracturing of our attention.
And we already know that more intentional ways of working, are known to be helpful in managing this overload. This can be done through having designated office hours to manage your availability. Or time blocking, where you can batch the time when you check and respond to emails and keep your mail account and slack account closed in between.
I would like to see how these new technologies can help us to work more more asynchronously. To help us preserve our focus and attention so that we can be more productive when we are online, which in turn can mean that we don’t have to spend as much time online.
With regards to social media, there’s plenty of research showing that overuse can cause mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. And many of us are using social media in both a personal and a professional capacity, so there’s is a high likelihood that we are overusing it without us realising.
Many of us are experiencing social isolation and loneliness and especially after the past two years many people still have social fears of being in real environments with other people.
It has been found that many of those who play games obsessively, are doing so to escape the disappointing or fearsome reality of their physical world. And there’s a lot going on in our physical worlds that’s heightening those anxious feelings.
Whether it’s gaming or social media, the escapism and connection promised by being online, and the accompanying dopamine these interactions release can be very attractive, but also addictive.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter known for its ‘feel good’ properties. It is linked to both movement and emotion in the body and plays an important role in our health and wellbeing.
What is less well known is that it’s also linked to our perception of time. As we know, studies have found that the reason we end up spending more time on social media than we realise, has to do with the dopamine connection. But it’s not just because these apps have been designed to trigger our prolonged engagement.
According to Phil Reed, a psychology professor at Swansea University, who is an expert on the effects of the internet on our brains, the reason we end up spending more time on social media than we realise, is also because when we feel pleasure, time stretches.
So, in other words, the dopamine hits we get from being on social media incentivise us to stay on there and we end up spending more time than we think we have, because we are unable to clearly judge time when dopamine is triggering pleasurable feelings.
Dr Andrew Huberman has recently done an interesting podcast on the relationship between time and dopamine, if you want to dive deeper. And a reminder that I will share further resources in the transcript notes.
It would seem that the responsibility is currently up to us to manage our usage in a healthy way, and that is likely to continue into the metaverse (at least in the short term). But our brain and body functions are already quite screwed up from our current usage, in part due to the way our current tools have been designed.
I think it will be a big challenge to change our behaviours on our own. We are going to need these new tools to help us. Which means the designers and developers of these tools have a responsibility to help us manage our time and behaviour online better.
When it comes to gaming, current research shows that there is a connection between online gaming and psychosis in people who display schizotypal personality traits (these are behaviours similar to those related to schizophrenia).
Although whether people are drawn to online gaming because they display these traits or whether the gaming causes the psychosis are not yet confirmed. But this does have implications for time spent in the metaverse, as people attracted to virtual worlds may run the risk of becoming more disassociated from their physical world, affecting their grip on reality.
Now, I’m not dissing gaming. It has it’s place and it can have positive impacts too. Working in the gaming industry is also becoming a popular career path for younger generations. And with the creation of online worlds a part of building multiverses, it’s even more important that we pay attention to it.
One of the current discussion points in virtual reality scenarios, whether it’s gaming or work related, revolves around the creation of avatars. There is a fear that avatars could lead to further disassociation from reality.
An avatar is a 3D representation of ourselves in a 3D digital universe. It will be how we show up in the metaverse, whether that’s at work or play. We may have a single avatar that we use in multiple locations, or different avatars for different places or events. With an avatar, we create recreate our likeness or pretend we are something else. With the rise of the pseudonymous economy, an avatar can be another way to create a level of privacy between your physical world personality and your online persona.
Already there is a consumerist drive towards ‘selling items’ that enhance our avatars, for example, with clothes and jewellery, so that we can look our best online. It will be interesting to see how consumer brands try to take over this space as creating more stuff in the real world becomes more and more unsustainable.
I can also see the benefits of Avatars.
Let’s take being on a Zoom call as an example. We are looking at 2D representations of people, whether they are on video or we’re looking at their static photo on screen. We aren’t able to exercise all of our senses online in this 2D world, so we miss a lot of visual and physical cues that can affect our understanding of a situation, a conversation or a person’s state of mind.
Also, when we are on a video call, if someone has their video turned off to preserve their cognitive energy and avoid zoom fatigue, then we feel unseen like we are talking into a void, so opportunities for feeling connection can be tenuous.
And even if your video is on, the people on your call can still feel unseen, if you’re looking at those people using your second monitor (when your camera is on your first monitor). So you’re looking them on your screen, but to them, it looks like you are looking away. This can cause people to feel disrespected as if you are ignoring them. It’s unconscious behaviour but it can be emotionally damaging.
Avatars will be able to mimic our facial expressions and body movements. In a virtual reality space where you are together with a group of avatars, there is an opportunity that this will enhance our ability to connect and communicate more effectively, and to do so in a more human way online in spite of that connection happening through our avatars.
Another element of this relates to our sense of self, our self-esteem and self-image. During the pandemic, seeing ourselves online day in and day out ended up giving a lot of people a complex.
There’s been a dramatic rise in plastic surgery as a result of the pandemic. Seeing our flaws up close and personal, has amplified them out of proportion to how other people see them, corrupting our self-image. Incidentally, this behaviour modification to look more perfect online is also being driven by the falsely picture-perfect world of social media.
If we have an avatar, we don’t have to physically show up looking perfect, because we can make our avatar look like a better version of ourselves. So perhaps that will alleviate some of these perceptional crises we face.
Excessive time online in social media and gaming spaces has already been proven to diminish empathy, especially in younger users who haven’t yet developed the emotional maturity or moral compass to understand the implications of their actions, or inaction.
But another potential positive of using these virtual environments is that they can be leveraged to help foster empathy, which supports wellbeing and self-actualisation.
Virtual reality is currently being used in research projects and scientific studies to test its viability as a method of helping people’s develop more empathy and to support their behaviour and mental health with practices such as digital cognitive behavioural therapy (or CBT). The results so far have been positive.
Those with social fears could also feel more at home and less socially awkward being in a virtual reality space. These types of immersive interactions could in turn help people learn the skills needed to integrate in a physical world more comfortably and confidently.
Our internal world affects our outside behaviour. And vice versa our external world can affect our inner thoughts.
Our outlook on the world affects our performance. And if that world, whether it is internal, external, physical or virtual, is fracturing our attention or making us feel bad about ourselves, then that has ramifications for our ability to function, perform and engage appropriately with loved ones, coworkers and peers.
As we’ll see in the next episode, there are lots of positive advantages to web 3 and the metaverse when it comes to our creativity, our productivity and to doing business online.
However, from what I can see at the present time, specifically when it comes to our wellbeing, the cons currently outweigh the benefits.
In the short term, our physical and mental health is likely to continue to suffer and this will be a big challenge we face in adopting this new technology. I can only hope that we can find ways to improve on this as the development, testing and implementation of these emerging technologies progress.
I have huge reservations about Mark Zuckerberg’s version of the metaverse and he and his cronies intentions in creating it. And there are other big players out there with similar profit-driven intentions, that are focused on taking our time, attention, user data and money, without giving a damn about our health.
However, a positive aspect of web 3 and it’s enabling technologies are that they are highly decentralised. So what’s encouraging is that there will be other ways to engage in the metaverse. Created by other parties who have more philanthropic, sustainable, healthier and more socially beneficial outcomes at heart. Again we need to be intentional.
So how do we manage our health and wellbeing with so many unknowns lying ahead?
It boils down to two things.
First, Intentionality – know why you are using your tools. Limit your daily use to set periods, and set boundaries around how you use it, when you use, and why you use it.
Second, we need to keep building and practising restorative foundational practices and habits that support our wellbeing and resilience in spite of our usage. These practices are basic and simple but effective. These relate to movement, mindset, sleep, nutrition and breathing. It is imperative that you are spending decent amounts of time away from a screen engaging in restorative activities.
It’s that simple, but also that hard.
Those most at risk are young people. It’s very easy for kids to get into gaming. If you’re a parent you need to be educating your children on the dangers, setting the example about healthy usage and helping them to develop good habits around their usage.
One way to set boundaries that support your physical health is to get into the habit of looking away from your screens every twenty minutes or so for at least 20 seconds. Is your workspace set up so you can look out of a window, or across a room?
Even better, at that 20-30 minute mark, get up and move around, changing your environment to change your state. Limit social media to specific times, for work or relaxation. And try to focus on doing one thing at a time.
I know that is easier said than done, but think about how you can initiate and implement small changes in your usage, so that you can gradually build better habits over time.
In the next episode, we’ll be getting into the creative, productive and business aspects of using these converging technologies. As I mentioned earlier there seem to be more advantages in those areas.
But to leverage those opportunities, we first need to be strong and healthy, of sound mind and body, so that we can show up on and do business effectively in our virtual worlds.
Links to articles and online guides that will help you develop a deeper understanding of the terms I’ve discussed in this episode.
Eye Strain, Myopia and ‘Near Work’ – The Guardian
Zoom and the Plastic Surgery Boom – BBC
Living in the Metaverse – Avatars and social impacts – Wired
Microsoft Mesh, the Metaverse & Avatars – Fast Company (HT Matt Woicik)
Will the Metaverse will impact mental health? – Psychology Today
Mental Health Research in the Metaverse – LinkedIn Pulse
The Metaverse, is it healthy? Phil Reed interview – Evening Standard Podcast
Dopamine, Serotonin & Time Perception – The Huberman Lab