Is virtual reality addictive? Is it dangerous? A psychologist gives us the answer

Is VR addictive? Will the kids of the future live closed in virtual reality ignoring the real world? Will VR ruin our lives? A lot of people seem concerned about these topics. I’ll try to answer these questions in this post, with the help of a psychologist.

I’m a VR enthusiast and I love highlighting all the good sides of virtual reality. For instance, VR can:

and this is just fantastic. But on the other side, Virtual Reality means strapping a device in front of our eyes, isolating from our real world and real friends to teleport into another world. It lets us escape. And escaping is always a risk: if VR is more entertaining than real reality, why people should return to the reality? Our risk is having people living in their houses with a headset strapped in front of their faces, playing games or enjoying VR porn experiences the whole day. I’ve always been worried about this, so I decided to ask my friend Vito Francesco De Giuseppe, who is a professional psychologist, to help me understand how much this risk is real.

The talk with him has been really really interesting and at the same time mindblowing. When he started talking using technical terms, I had hard times understanding what he was saying. It has been the meeting of two different worlds: psychology and computer science. I want to report you the most important parts of this dialogue between him and me, so that you can have a clearer picture of the psychological implications of VR… even if, in the end, you will realize that the picture is too complex to be explained just with a simple sentence or two.

vito de giuseppe virtual reality psychologist addiction
Psychologist Vito De Giuseppe
Hello Vito. Thanks for having accepted my little interview. We met since you are both a psychologist and VR enthusiast. Can you tell my readers what’s your past work and future vision about VR in psychology?

I think that VR for a neuroscience researcher or psychotherapist is the equivalent of a microscope for a biologist.

I personally have studied the phenomenon for so many years, in more general terms, or by analyzing the impact of ICT technologies on health and management. I’ve also written an essay dedicated to VR a few years ago: Health 2.0: Social Network and Health Education (Italian Edition). In this field, I have been using VR for years in my work with my patients to treat phobias, obsessive thoughts, anxiety disorders etc.

My dream is to have an online virtual platform where patients from home can get involved and do their therapy sessions in a virtual VR environment inside which the therapist interact with them. For now, I’m sitting on Skype, but I’m working for this to happen.
My younger patients have no difficulty in approaching the use of these tools, and even the older ones, after an initial skepticism, are able to handle them perfectly.
The work to do is still a lot and in any case very much dependent on the evolution of the technology, which in my opinion has still a lot to improve, especially on latency times and graphical quality for mobile media.

I really want to highlight that Vito is working on the use of VR in psychology for many years, even before Palmer Luckey’s 2012 Kickstarter campaign. One day he started talking me about his experiments with crappy headsets of the past and with arcade video games. It has been very interesting to hear some of his anecdotes, like when he brought some patients to arcades with VR headsets and used a lot of coins just to perform a psychological treatment that he retained effective. I really love his strong passion for these technologies.

Now he can comfortably work with a Gear VR headset, but if technological issues have diminished a lot, he has still to fight skepticism of more traditional doctors.

Ok, now it’s time for the important question: is there the risk that VR becomes better than RR (real reality) and people will spend the whole day escaping from reality?

I think that the question you’re making is incorrect. We should first understand what is reality and then try to define a difference between real reality and virtual reality.

And here the mind-blowing starts…

Ehm… and what is the reality?

Reality is the way our brain processes and organizes the information it perceives and detects. Consequently, if the crux is the information, the concept of reality becomes the construct around which your question revolves. After all, we are all talking about the fact that we may live in a simulated reality. The hypothesis of reality was formulated in 2003 by Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at the University of Oxford, according to which members of an advanced civilization possessing enormous computing power may decide to simulate their ancestors.

For Neuroscience, the perception of reality is an act through which we build the world around us. We actively build it, we do not passively assimilate it. It is clear that this assumption poses the risk of being faced with situations in which reality can become a relative fact. This is tricky to be understood: it’s hard to distinguish what is real and what is instead produced by our mind.
Let me provide you an example. Until a few years ago if we saw a man speaking while walking or gesturing in front of a hypothetical interlocutor we could not see, we would have had serious doubts about his mental health. Today, however, the first thing we think about such a scene is that that person is talking on the phone. So today our reality is different from the one of a few years ago because we disclose and catalog information differently, building a different world.

Reality is just a series of conventions that humans have given themselves to describe the world and to live all together. In the end, it is just a set of information.

Ok, this is the first brainf*ck of the interview: we love speaking about real reality, but from a psychological point of view, there’s no real reality… we could even be living in a simulation, so already being inside a virtual reality. We actually don’t even know what is real and what is not. Our brain takes information and analyzes them, according to conventions we all humans have. In a sentence that Vito answered me later, he said to me that a psychologist has no interest in defining an objective reality because it doesn’t exist. So, from a psychological standpoint, someone that lives in VR all day, that makes VR his reality, is not that different from someone that lives in the “real” world. They’re just experiencing their realities, analyzing the information of the world they’re in.

This means that the question is ill-posed since the beginning. So, you’re saying that a future where we’ll all living in a virtual world is not crazy and unhealthy?

Exactly. If in the end, we can live an experience where everything and everyone are perceived as real, what prevents us from living it to its fullest, as if it were real?

It is clear that we are talking about a virtual reality in which all five senses are included, we are not talking about simulations. Today we are not at these levels yet, but I think we will get there soon.

Pimax 8k VR review
The Pimax 8K headset: it has an amazing resolution, but is still not at the levels that Vito is talking about (Image by Pimax)
Ok, this is clear to me now. Real reality and virtual reality are just simply realities. There are no good and evil ones. But, coming back to the original question about addictions… tech addictions are an issue today. Let’s think about all those people addicted to their smartphones…

I have no such negative view of the situation. Technological evolution has always led to changes that have changed our lives to such a degree that we can not live without the technological artifacts in terms of the consequences of their use.
Think about the car: how many people today can live without it? And without television? And to be more general, how many people would be able to live in a world without electricity?
We must not be afraid of change. Today, our attention is focused on smartphones, but tomorrow, when the smartphone will become a device inserted under our skin and that will allow us to call, pay by credit card and whatever, with no visible artifact but with only a few gestures of a hand and without any vivid effort, what will we say? What will focus our attention on?

“Artifact” here is just a technical term :). The sense of this statement is clear: every technological shift takes with it the fact that some things become necessary to us and we can’t live without them anymore. We are all addicted to smartphones simply because nowadays it is almost impossible to live without them. It is just a normal shift, nothing to be particularly worried about. It is just that today’s reality is different from the one of some years ago.

Yes, these are lovely words. But there are people that have to undergo therapy because smartphones have become an addiction. And the same will surely happen with VR.

Dependence is a basic pathological structure, which should not be confused with the subject of addiction. An addictive person will modulate his addiction in various fields: play, substance abuse, and so on. It is like some medicines: they’re very useful tools, but sometimes people can become addicted to them.

VR can only make existing (psycho)pathologies to emerge in people into which they were dormant.

These sentences are the most important ones of this whole article. The subject of every addiction is a person that has some psychological problems that make him/her addicted to something, that can be a substance (alcohol, drugs, etc…) or a behavior (online Poker, etc…). The problem is not in the substance but in the person. If someone becomes addicted to alcohol, it is not because of the alcohol, but because he/she has some internal discomfort that he/she tries to solve by drinking alcohol. If alcohol was not available, he would surely have become addicted to something else: for instance sex, drugs or whatever else.

The same will hold for VR: for sure we’ll have people that will become addicted to virtual reality, but this will happen just because they have some underlying psychological issues. Without VR they would become addicted to smartphones or sex, for instance. People with a healthy mind can’t become addicted to VR.

RoboRecall review of VR game
Robo Recall is awesome, but won’t make you addicted unless you’re inclined to develop an addiction (Image by Epic)

Finally, we have an answer for the original question: VR can become addictive, but only if you have underlying issues that VR can make come to light.

How many people are currently addicted to VR?

The initial diffusion of VR devices does not allow theoretical conclusions to be drawn on addictive forms, but there is a whole literature on video game addictions. In Asian countries such as South Korea or Japan, there is a huge concern about teenagers, as well as adults, who spend all their time in front of a screen or other devices to play online multiplayer video games. This syndrome, which is part of the more generic “net addiction”, is also concerned by Western countries.
It will be necessary to wait for a wider spread of VR to begin defining the traits of this dependence, where found.

So, you’re not frightened by VR, do you?

As a psychotherapist, I am not frightened by these technologies, and I consider them not only an effective tool but the natural evolution of psychotherapeutic techniques and an effective research tool for neuroscience in general.

Thanks to VR, we have the ability to create protected, encrypted environments inside which experiencing environmental conditions and related states, responses to adverse or critical stimuli and responses. VR is the best tool to implement techniques such as “exposure” or “flooding”.
Scientific literature illustrates through experimental research the use and positive results of VR in all fields of psychopathology: neuropsychological, rehabilitative, psycho-pedagogical and evolutionary.

I do not think about a negative impact, but about a profound change in our cognitive patterns. Whether this is either negative or positive depends on the points of view. The debate is open and will continue to be in the future. In the end, progress involves the ideological conflict between a conservative approach and one more open to novelty: the same evolution of species is the result of a balance between the conservation of established patterns over time and the implantation of new patterns that emerge and result more effective.

This means that humanity may change due to pervasive technology? And that will change in the future thanks to AR?

This is already happening. We should wonder how our mind is changing after the impact of pervasive technologies like smartphones and mobile technology in general.

We are constantly interconnected. Having supports that expand our perceptual horizons will surely change our cognitive patterns. How? At the moment, I can not say it. I envision an organization very similar to the one of the insects living in a logic of swarm. Perhaps, we could become a society very similar to the Borgs that can be seen in Star Trek. For many, this is a dystopian vision… I think it will be the natural evolution.
In the end, information technology works precisely on the discovery and elaboration of the elementary structure that underlies our way of building the world: the information.

Borg VR psychology addiction
Star Trek Borg, if you’re not into this TV series. (Image from Wikipedia, copyright of the series is of Paramount Television)

Perhaps we will have minds with higher computational powers, we will perceive in the spectrum of what we currently cannot see and hear. This will expand our minds and maybe we can do things that we do not even get.

Our bodies will certainly be altered and if the mind molds chasing the change of the body that it carries, the changes will give birth to, perhaps, another species.

Homus Technologicus Cyborg as the evolution of Homo Sapiens Sapiens. As Giuseppe O. Longo suggests (Homo technologicus, 2001):

Technology is so important that it contributes to the formation of the cognitive (and active) categories of man, conditioning his development. The distinction between man and technology is not as clear as it is sometimes claimed, because technology contributes to the essence of man, and the evolution of technology has also become the evolution of man. If biological evolution is today [appears], the cultural one is faster than ever: but the separation between them is artificial, as the two processes have now been interwoven into a ‘biocultural’ or ‘biotechnological’

This is very fascinating. Have you read my article about Brain Computer Interfaces in Virtual and Augmented Reality? (If not… what are you waiting for! It’s one of my best articles and I’m sure you’ll love it…). In that article I highlight how in the future we may have devices implanted in our brain that will make all our minds interconnected and will make us communicate directly with artificial intelligence in a natural way and maybe will make us feel through senses that we currently can’t even conceive (for instance see infrared and ultraviolet frequencies, bypassing that simple instrument that is our eye). Vito De Giuseppe talks about this man of the future as the “Homus Technologicus Cyborg” that is an evolution of the “Homo Sapiens Sapiens”. Wow.

Notice that, again, he doesn’t say that this evolution is good or bad. This is just an evolution that we have to accept.

Matrix brain computer interface virtual reality
Maybe the Homo Technologicus will have a head plug as in The Matrix… (Image by Instructables, from movie The Matrix)
Wow, it has been great dreaming about this future with you. But, talking about the present moment… from a psychological standpoint, kids can use virtual reality?

This is one of the most delicate topics. The categories used by Piaget to define the children’s development, for instance, have been developed in a time when all that we technically have today did not exist yet. Consequently, the definition of what is risky for a child, in the use of virtual reality, must be observed and analyzed with great caution.
My professional experience leads me to say that up to 5-6 years old, a child may be confused, because can’t tell completely apart an experience in the virtual world from one in the real world. So can’t tell the different realities apart.

Notice that I’m talking about a massive VR delivery: nowadays, kids are often digital natives, so they already distinguish someway between virtual and real realities. At this time, a kid of 7 years already knows that when he’s playing a racing game on the PC, he’s not driving a car in the real world. So these kind of kids can experience VR, but it must be used “cum grano salis”, i.e. not submitting the baby to a continuous bombing of VR experiences.

There is, however, a great amount of scientific literature on the use of VR for neuropsychological or psychic therapy in very small children, with excellent results.
I believe that all this discussions about the risks for children is more the result of the vision of adults that are not born with this technology and so they fear its use, since they are not in possession of the cognitive categories that allow them to catalog the phenomenon.

So, from a psychological standpoint, every 6+ years old child that already uses PC and smartphone can experience VR. But only short experiences once in a while, and with the supervision of an adult person. This way he/she can be introduced safely to the VR world.

Notice that I’m talking strictly of a psychological point of view. There are other issues, like motion sickness and eye strain, that I’ve already discussed in this post dedicated to VR for kids.

And what about experiences that we developers create, have you some advices?

I believe that everyone should strive to educate the developers, to include the developers. They should work with experienced professionals that are experts in the functioning of the human mind. Developers know well how machines work, but are not expert conoisseurs of the human mind. In each team of VR content creators, the figure of the psychologist should not be missing. This is necessary to create virtual worlds that work according to the schema of human minds and so that result pleasant to its inhabitants.

I agree, this would be great. But for small indie studios (like Luden or Tiny Bull Studios) is not always easy to access the consultancies of a psychologist…

Brain Computer Interface Virtual Reality
Beautiful representation of brain and its neurons (Image taken from Wait But Why)
It has been a very interesting talk, Giuseppe… thank you!

I know that the topic is very complicated and would surely require a longer talk to answer the questions from all sides. I hope we can discuss about it again in the future.

And I hope that as well. From this dialogue I had the impression of having grasped only the most important concepts, but not the whole topic. So I hope to write in the future a more detailed article about this interesting topic.

For now, I really thank Vito Francesco De Giuseppe for his help and you for having read this post. If you want to collaborate with him in VR psychology, you can contact me or directly him on LinkedIn. And if you liked the post, please share it on social media and subscribe to my newsletter to help me keep alive this VR magazine!

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AR/VR developer, startupper, zombie killer. Sometimes I pretend I can blog, but actually I've no idea what I'm doing. I tried to change the world with my startup Immotionar, offering super-awesome full body virtual reality, but now the dream is over. But I've still not waken up...